HERE'S A QUESTION for you: how many members of the Scottish Parliament could tell you anything about Sir John Cowperthwaite? To narrow the matter still further, how many Scottish Conservatives are aware of his peculiar genius?
For Cowperthwaite, by some distance Merchiston Castle School's most influential alumnus, was the man most widely credited with allowing Hong Kong to flourish. Millions prospered as a result of his efforts while the colony's Financial Secretary from 1961-71. His successors tinkered with his approach but, broadly speaking, remained true to his vision of "positive non-intervention".
On Cowperthwaite's watch Hong Kong's exports increased by nearly 15% year on year; workers enjoyed a 50% increase in real wages and the proportion of households existing in poverty fell by two-thirds. Meanwhile, Hong Kong avoided debt and kept taxes low. It was, by any measure, a remarkable transformation, spinning wealth and opportunity from less than obviously promising materials.
I thought of Sir John while reading a recent dispatch from the BBC's economics editor, Stephanie Flanders. She asked how it can be possible for the number of people in work in Britain to have increased even as, according to the latest figures, the economy contracted by 0.7% in the second quarter of this year. This, she said, is a "statistic that Britain's finest economic brains simply cannot explain". Not being one of Britain's finest economic brains, I can't explain it either.
Flanders offered a number of possible answers, none of them wholly persuasive or satisfying.
Some of this growth in the labour market is accounted for by greater numbers of part-time workers. Some of it may be explained by stagnant wages making it easier for companies to avoid lay-offs or even, in some cases, hire new workers. Some of it can be ascribed to an increase in self-employment. And some of it was allocated to some unspecified "something else". Perhaps.
The point is that we don't know. All the research, all the number-crunching, trend-extrapolating and hard-thinking cannot explain the mysteries of the labour market or, for that matter, the wider economy. The numbers, even when comparatively easy to understand, are forever subject to revision. First estimates or initial guesses are always subject to revision.
Which brings me back to Sir John Cowperthwaite. Despite pressure from civil servants in Britain (and some within the colony's administration too) the Financial Secretary declined to collect, far less publish, detailed economic statistics that would document Hong Kong's economic progress. Doing so, he suggested, was nothing less than an invitation to mandarins and ministers to interfere with the workings of the Hong Kong economy. However well-intentioned those efforts might be, they could only complicate and confuse matters. At best, improvements in one arena might well come at the price of losses in another.
If all this was true of Hong Kong how much more true might it be in Scotland or the United Kingdom? We live in a data-driven age in which the assumption is always that more information leads to better outcomes. But not everything can be measured usefully; one risk of the mania for measurement is that the importance of those things resistant to measurement is diminished or downplayed. Even ostensibly-useful data - such as school league tables - offers just a snapshot (and a partial one at that) of a school's performance. There are limits to its usefulness.
Moreover, the wealth of economic data - while useful for the Treasury and the City - can be a false friend. In as much as it persuades ministers and civil servants that they can be masters of the economic universe. Hence our ever-expanding tax code and the endless tinkering beloved of Chancellors from both main parties. There is no problem which cannot be measured and once measured, fixed.
Except there is. The workings of the economy remain a matter of mystery. The aggregation of millions of individual acts drives the great, sprawling mess that is a modern market-oriented economy. It is folly to think this beast can be controlled or otherwise manipulated by teams of boffins at the Treasury or the Bank of England. Very often, as Stephanie Flanders admitted, we just don't know the answers.
Cowperthwaite was always endearingly modest about his record. "I did very little" he said. "All I did was to try to prevent some of the things that might undo it." If only such modesty were more common! Instead it is depressingly rare.
It is not that Cowperthwaite's 50-year old recipe for the Hong Kong would necessarily be applicable in every particular to the United kingdom today, rather that it would be pleasing if more politicians and civil servants had greater sympathy with the broader thrust of his views. There is wisdom in modesty.
Moreover, it sometimes seems to me that the economy is some kind of confidence game. It needs confidence to expand. Yet how can such confidence be built when ministers keep talking about the need to boost business and consumer confidence? That they feel the need to issue such exhortations is a signal that businesses and consumers should not feel confident. Otherwise there's be no need for such boosterism. Similarly, urging the banks to "lend more" is an unwitting signal to the banks that they are right to adopt a cautious - perhaps overly-cautious - approach to lending. If the conditions for growth were present there'd be no need for ministerial chivvying.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that ministers might realise that silence can be their friend, not an admission of defeat. Perhaps it is also impossible to hope that ministers cease playing favourites at budget time. But, paradoxical as it may seem, it may also be possible to suffer from an information overload that, in time, clogs the system with so many corrections and fresh initiatives that, before long, it's gummed-up completely.
If this is the case there's a hefty bill attached to the arrogance - however well-intentioned it may be - of trying to explain, far less predict or control, the way the economy works. Perhaps it is now so big and so complicated that it lies beyond our ability to explain, never mind manage. If so, then admitting honest defeat and letting nature work its magic may be the best hope available. Doing less better, is a phrase with an unfortunate history in Scottish politics, but it was not a bad idea then and remains a fine one now.
And, if nothing else, it might make Sir John Cowperthwaite a better-kent man in his native land.