THE one certainty about the present global economy, I wrote a fortnight ago, is that it stands on the threshold of a digital revolution. A giant step forward is coming for industrial society, comparable to the era after James Watt discovered steam power in the 18th century or Lord Kelvin laid the first telegraph cable in the 19th century or John Logie Baird conceived of television in the 20th century (and these are just the Scottish inventions). Their work will still be influencing future generations and their names will still be celebrated long after Donald Trump or Theresa May have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Scotland, while not barren of inventors today, no longer produces so many great ones. The digital revolution has its origins in the US, in men like Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Like many of those forerunners he came of humble origins, as an adopted child from San Francisco who drifted through his teenage years, zonked on dope, till the advent of the personal computer gave him his historic opportunity. His final legacy was the iPad, which he presented to the world in a typically virtuoso onstage performance in 2010, a year before his death from cancer at the age of 56. The iPad is already in its fourth generation, is assembled in Shenzhen, China, and globally sells about 25 million a month. From the Arctic Circle to the equatorial jungles, users of all kinds and conditions crane over their keypads. It is typical of technology in the 21st century, ruthlessly driven forward by competition and profit but still a net benefaction to the human race.

I rehearse this story as a further contribution to the discussion with my esteemed colleague Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp. He sees me as standing at one of two extremes, left and right, socialist and capitalist, which hinder the search in between for an answer to his question, “How do we design a new economic system that will actually work?”

The question implies that both socialism and capitalism have stopped working. That is certainly true of socialism, but hardly so of capitalism, as the very latest statistics confirm. According to the World Bank, in 2018 the advanced economies will grow by something over two per cent, the developing economies by 4.5 per cent, both figures coming as modest improvements on 2017. Of course within these global figures there are big differences, with China leading the way at more than six per cent and the few remaining socialist countries all stagnant if not in steep decline. The UK is worse than the average, too – and Scotland with it – mainly because of Brexit.

But this time I want not so much to bandy further statistics about as to respond to Gordon’s more general point of “how do we design a new economic system?” So far as I can see, he regards this mainly as a matter of summoning enough willpower. Because too much of our decision-making in government and elsewhere is bound up with boosting our present main measure of prosperity, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), he thinks factors other than production should be brought into a new Inclusive Development Index (IDI). He has mentioned a number of such factors, but made no attempt to show how an index could be constructed out of them. My own view is that an IDI would be of little use unless the additions to it were more important than the main movements already captured in GDP. There’s a danger it will all be just an exercise in trendy political correctness. True, GDP also mismeasures, because it runs behind the real world. But correction is possible with a lag, and in fact often happens.

I have a much bigger problem with Gordon’s use of the word “design” in the question he posed. For all his care to deploy language in a consciously progressive sense, I think “design” reveals him as being more on the left than on the right, more of a socialist than a capitalist.

To underline my point, I ask on what principles Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp would have designed a new economic system in 2006, the year before the great financial crisis broke on us? Perhaps it would have been much like Gordon Brown’s system, when he claimed to have brought “an end to boom and bust”. If so, it would have rested on tax cuts and higher public spending, lavished alike on the welfare state and the military-industrial complex. In 2006 it was not yet clear this would also boost crony capitalism and financial bailouts, but a couple of years later the whole house of cards tumbled down and revealed in its ruins that darker side. So what would have been the value of a design for a new economic system worked out amid the conditions of 2006? None.

Let’s take a further step back to the year 1972, when the UK and other Western countries were still feeling the last benefits of the boom that had started after the Second World War, and carried Europe from devastation to plenty. A design then for a new economic system would have recommended deficit financing and direction of the economy through tax-and-spend, while subjecting capitalist enterprise to strict regulation and pursuing a wide range of other social ambitions through consensus. The overall aim of stability was in its way laudable, but ignored the point that the real world is not always stable. In 1973 the Arab countries, tired of being bossed around by big oil companies, decided to keep the profits for themselves – and while they were about it put up the oil price too. Expensive energy has permanently affected the way we live. What would have been the value of a design for a new economic system worked out in the conditions of 1972? None.

Economic systems will never be designed as a machine can be designed, because the course of economic history is unpredictable. To quote the Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper, “we cannot know today what we will know tomorrow” (The Open Society and its Enemies, 1945, and The Poverty of Historicism, 1957). The mainstream of economists took the opposite view, and set out to construct a discipline resembling physics in its ability to forecast inevitable progressions from premises to outcomes. By 2006 they might even have seemed to have reached their goal, but only through deliberately ignoring all facts that could contradict them. The actual result was the unpredicted global crisis that followed, which they are still unable to explain or correct. And these people are supposed to design us a new economic system?

By contrast, at the time of the crisis the iPad did not even exist. Yet, in the eight years since Steve Jobs unveiled it, it has already transformed lives in countless ways and will continue to do so. Among lives it has transformed are those of the workers who produce it at Shenzhen, for which the term sweatshop would be a euphemism. Plagiarism, tax dodging, environmental damage and collaboration with official US surveillance are other offences of which Apple stands accused. Yet overall it is a benefactor of the human race. I doubt if there is a “design”, let alone a solution, which can encompass these contradictions of capitalism and deep dilemmas of our age.