There is a well-known theory that if you give an infinite number of monkeys a typewriter each, then eventually one of them will produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Would they also produce the complete works of John Maynard Keynes (or Adam Smith, depending on your economic tastes)? This was the thought that came to mind when I heard that the public were to be consulted on the proposed cuts in Government spending. Not that I regard the British public as monkeys, you understand, but the principle seems to be the same – ask enough people the same question, and someone will give you the right answer.

Of course, getting a range of opinions on economic policies is just hard – if you want two opinions, you need ask only one economist (and I speak as an economics graduate). Another old joke tells of the economist unable to practice after breaking his arm, since this rendered him unable to say “on the one hand…but on the other hand…”.

Moving swiftly back to the public consultation on spending cuts, I’m not sure that this will produce the best results. When asked “where do you think the cuts should be”, most people will respond “somewhere else”. For example, the NHS is the third largest non-military employer in the world (after the Wal-mart and the Indian Railway). I’m guessing that this fact will mean that the NHS escapes the worst of the cuts since NHS employees will prefer other public services to be cut first.

The consultation process appears to be a way of reducing the Government’s exposure to adverse reaction following cuts, allowing them to say “we were only doing what you wanted us to do”. What people want and what they need are not necessarily the same thing. Hopefully the Government will recognise this when budgets are set.

Finally, it is worth noting that even though the infinite number of monkeys theory is just a thought experiment, it has been tried in practice, most recently by the University of Plymouth. The result? After a month, only five pages had been produced consisting largely of the letter “s”. In fact, the main use of the keyboard was as a lavatory for the monkeys. Perhaps there is a warning here for the Government – you’ll hear the same idea many times, and don’t be surprised if many of the opinions are…not entirely relevant to the question asked.