Gordon and the red-tape hydra

Gordon Brown has pledged to "cut red tape" for at least the third time this year, according to the Telegraph. This might seem a strange thing to criticise on pickinglosers, but we do so, not because it would be a bad idea, but because we don't believe he even knows what that means.

When you look at the detail of the story, what he has actually done is to ask the FSA to cut red tape by 25%:

  1. How does one quantify "red tape cuts"? In what units is this measured? It's a popular concept, borrowed from Australia I believe, but utterly meaningless. "88.2% of statistics...."
  2. Why only the financial services sector? Does the rest of business (or life in general) not count? The Telegraph reports that "the Chancellor will also say he wants the Department of Trade and Industry to focus on the global promotion of the financial services sector, and in particular the City of London." Can you get a much clearer case of government preferential treatment? And do we believe foreigners are going to use the City because the DTI goes around promoting them, or because they gain a competitive advantage from doing so? How many foreign businessmen in whom the City would be interested do we think are not aware of the City and its services already? Enough to justify regular trips abroad for DTI ministers and civil servants, apparently.

Apparently Ed Balls likes to be called the "City Minister". I didn't know they were allowed to make up their own titles and roles. And how disturbing is it that the man responsible for the detail of economic policy that affects all of us, designs it with particular consideration of how it affects the City. Is it inconceivable that there may be circumstances where the interests of the City and of the broader economy (or industry) are not aligned? If so, who is going to be the winner when hard choices have to be made? Still, Ed should be alright with a nice juicy City job or multiple non-execs once his political career is over. As both Ed and the country will be better off when that day arrives, perhaps we could agree that it is brought forward. Next election, perhaps?

Meanwhile, Rick Haythornthwaite, the decent but misguided businessman (and innocent abroad) who has been suckered by Gordon into fronting up the Better Regulation Commission, whose job is to make it look like something is being done about red tape without actually getting in the way of Gordon's latest baroque scheme, has observed that the "root cause" of the problem is a "flawed dialogue between government and society about risk and how to manage it". No it isn't. The root cause is a government that believes in micro-management of every aspect of our lives.

But a significant contribution to the problem (not the solution) is made by people who think a phrase such as "flawed dialogue between government and society" actually means anything. I don't think we're likely to find government and society sitting down to have a conversation any time soon. In which parallel universe do either government or society engage in dialogue?

This anthropomorphic attitude to institutions and abstract entities reveals the extent to which those in the orbit of government think of society as an amorphous entity capable of action in its own right, rather than as the sum of the individuals of which it is comprised. Let's be clear, society does not act, does not choose, does not communicate. People act, choose and communicate. The net effect of those actions may be construed as the action of society, but that action has no existence separate from that of the individuals whose actions produced the effect. Though infelicitously expressed, that is what Maggie meant by "there is no such thing as society", and she was right.