In The excellent long read in The Guardian on 6 February, Stefan Collini, professor emeritus of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge University analyses the ideas of Dominic Cummings, as expressed in his extensive blogs and other scribblings. A powerful and ambitious intellect skewed by arrogance-induced myopia.
Professor Collini writes that Cummings’ “ideal form of government is one that operates like a small start-up: a few bright guys, some unconventional thinking, no red tape and, hey presto, something gets done.” Like Uber, WeWork or perhaps Theranos?
Looks good on paper but…
Democracies have a number of things in common with free markets, such as distributed, as opposed to centralised, decision-making: the idea that the noisy jumble of interests and ideas, some good, some awful, will collectively deliver better outcomes than some elite group of absolute decision-makers.
Its fashionable thinking these days, especially among those who have done best out of the noisy free-market jumble, to believe that “business” “can-do” can straighten out all the muddled political rigmarole that gums up the works and holds places like Britain back from realising their potential. The problem is that economic and business principles applied to government tend to hit the Armco railing before getting very far. Ask Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first Secretary of State. For that matter, ask anyone who’s had to work in the Trump White House. The reasons are not hard to find.
Far from free-market, decisions in commercial enterprises such as start-ups are usually made by very small groups of like-minded people: “weirdos and misfits”, as Mr Cummings would have it – more dirigiste than democratic. The smaller the enterprise, the less democratic they tend to be. The boss issues commands and, through one mechanism or another, employees act on them. If they don’t like what they’re asked to do, they can, in principle, leave and work somewhere else. If the boss makes bad decisions and the firm fails, it can declare bankruptcy and seek protection from its creditors. Governments are understandably reluctant to do this, unless they seek to emulate the Soviet Union in 1991, when it disintegrated into its component parts.
Countries are made up of millions of people with varying points of view, interests and abilities, and governing them is much, much harder than even the largest, most complex corporation, with commensurately more complex problems that cannot be modelled like a search algorithm or a digital marketplace – or even an industrial production line. It is surprising that someone as clever as Cummings could miss this point.
Nothing lasts forever
Another reason why the start-up seems a curious analogy for an intellect as powerful as Cummings’ is that it is essentially an ephemeral, transition phase between an idea and a durable organisation. It cannot remain long in its start-up phase: either it grows into a bigger organisation or it disappears. By its nature it is unstable and unsustainable.
As Mark Zuckerberg and others have found, growing into a big corporation has its downsides. Even with as few as a couple of hundred employees, you start to look like a mature firm, complete with administrative layers, governance structures and other repositories of that muddled thinking the start-up was supposed to avoid. Bosses may find they need to take into account the different points of view of their many employees to keep them motivated and discourage them from leaving. They may even ask them for their ideas on how things should be done, which means that decisions get made more slowly and deliberately, often delegated to division heads and – horror – committees! That is what comes with a big balance sheet and big salaries for the bright guys – which is presumably what they were aiming for from the beginning.
A clue to these odd blind spots may lie in the list of people and ideas that have influenced Cummings. Professor Collini mentions, among many others, political thinkers such as Heraclitus, Machiavelli, Marx and Hayek. Conspicuous by their absence are any practising politicians, past or present: no Gladstone, Disraeli, Lincoln or Churchill. Given his start-up-inspired, free-wheeling-cum-dirigiste sort of thinking, one might have expected mention of someone like Lee Kwan Yew. Perhaps this omission was only on the part of Professor Collini, or could it be that Cummings thinks all politicians to be dunder-heads? Perhaps he just does not like to admit that political skills are needed to make an organisation, even a start-up, work. Even bright guys need to convince a room full of investors, after all.
Singapore on Thames?
There may be another reason for omitting reference to political leaders such as Lee Kwan Yew: Britons may not willingly submit to Singapore-style authoritarianism; Lee Kwan Yew’s heirs are finding that Singaporeans too are less keen on it than they were.
In a representative democracy you can’t sack the worst performers after each annual review. But they can sack you – unless you become a despot, that is.