Sunday, 15 June 2014

The one great principle

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.
Charles Dickens - Bleak House

I’ve used this Dickens quote before because it's a favourite of mine with wide applicability.

For example, If the word government is substituted for English law, it almost becomes a law of nature. It's what I observed for most of my working life - government making business for itself. Mostly during the latter years of my sentence - as life became progressively more bureaucratic.

The commercial world makes business for itself  but government has the power to do it without the trouble and inconvenience of attracting customers. Hence the close links between big business and big government. Certain professions and organisations cuddle up to government for the same reason.

From this aspect, Dickens’ monstrous maze covers anything from minutiae such as the date of the next meeting (because there always has to be one) to protecting ministerial budgets to promoting custom and practice as a guiding principle. And yes, I have heard custom and practice used as an argument for resisting beneficial change.

Take science for example. A key reason why it is so politically attractive to bend science into a policy instrument is that it creates business. Business for government, people in government, corporations entangled with government, government supported charities - and of course scientists.

The nutritional sciences are a case in point. What is nutritional advice worth after decades of study and the expenditure of uncounted billions? May I suggest an answer somewhere in the vicinity of not much? May I further suggest that a moderate and varied diet seems to cover it?

As far as I can see from personal experience, a traditional main meal of meat and two veg followed by a pud plus maybe a glass or two of something in the evening is fine. Not quite my taste, but it didn't cause my parents' generation to keel over at an early age. Too many calories do cause problems as does too much booze, but we've known that for centuries.

It doesn’t matter though – food fads give rise to food regulations and food regulations are business. Looping back to Dickens, it’s a coherent scheme.

Government bungles everything it touches, partly because bungling is good business too. Lessons can be learned, relearned then learned all over again. Newspapers report the bungles, committees investigate them, auditors audit them and politicians take advantage of them.

Let’s finish with a question and a possible answer.

How will the drugs problem be resolved?

Unfortunately it may well be the case that so much business is created by not resolving it that there is no business reason why it should ever be resolved. In that case, unless the drugs problem becomes a threat to social and political stability, unless it becomes a threat to government business, then the current situation seems likely to continue.

So maybe the drugs issue isn’t a question of weighing up moral choices or policies which do the least harm. Maybe it’s merely a question of whatever policy generates the most government business with the least political risk.

Sounds cynical, but when it comes to making those millions of micro-decisions which comprise social and political trends, then people can be very cynical indeed. Especially when it isn’t obvious – when custom and practice so conveniently sidestep the rational and ethical faculties.

When government folk are making business for themselves.

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