The storming of the accountants

David Boyle

"It may work fine in practice," goes a joke that the French make at their own expense. "The trouble is, it just doesn't work in theory." So it is strange that Paris has become the birthplace of a revolt against the pre-eminence of theory over practice, of economic abstraction over reality, and statistics over real life. Called "post-autistic economics" - "autistic" is intended to imply an obsessive preoccupation with numbers - the revolt began with a website petition in June 2000 from students at the Sorbonne. They were protesting against the dogmatic teaching of neoclassical economics and the "uncontrolled use" of mathematics as "an end in itself".

Within weeks, the call was taken up by students across France. Le Monde launched a public debate, and Jack Lang, the education minister, appointed the respected economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi to head an inquiry. Fitoussi reported last September, backing many of the rebels' points and recommending sweeping changes in the way economics is taught in French universities. The movement has had a worldwide impact, with Cambridge students drawing up their own petition - although most were too scared for their future careers to put their names to it.

Could this episode prove the beginning of the end for the whole cult of measurement, statistics, targets and indicators that has become such a feature of modern life, not just in the Blair government, but around the world?

The phrase "post-autistic" has a touch of Gallic cruelty about it, but there is a sense in which we have been cut off from reality by the plethora of targets and indicators. It's like the 18th-century mathematical prodigy Jedediah Buxton, who, asked if he had enjoyed a performance of Richard III, could say only that the actors had spoken 12,445 words.

Over the past decade or so - boosted by added enthusiasm from new Labour - we have been plunged into what Professor Michael Power of the London School of Economics calls "the audit culture . . . a gigantic experiment in public management". We can see the results everywhere. The government introduced about 8,000 targets or numerical indicators of success during its first term of office. We have NHS targets, school league tables, environmental indicators - 150 of them at last count - and measurements covering almost every area of professional life or government, all in the name of openness, accountability and democracy.

Nor is this just happening in the public services. The Japanese multinational Matsushita has developed a "smart" toilet that measures your weight, fat ratio, temperature, protein and glucose every time you give it something to work on. Then it sends these figures automatically to your doctor.

Accountancy firms cream off 10 per cent of British graduates to do all this counting. Whole armies of number-crunchers are out there, adding to the budgets of public transport, the NHS and social services.

We have been here before - especially in periods of great social hope such as the 1830s, when the followers of Jeremy Bentham rushed across the country in stagecoaches, armed with great bundles of tabular data and measuring everything they thought important: the number of cesspits (which they saw as an indicator of ill health), or pubs (an indicator of immorality), or the number of hymns that children could recite from memory.