Matt Ridley—Advice for a Prime Minister

Matt Ridley has an article in the Spectator, “How to be PM: ten rules for the next Tory leader to live by”, which contains so much sanity and pithy statements I was about to quote portions of it as comments on three separate discussions here, so I decided to make it a main post. The advice is applicable well beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. Here are some examples.

Assume all public bodies have the same goal – and it isn’t what it says on the tin. You might think the Committee for the Promotion of Postage Stamp Collections is obsessed with postage stamps, or the Sewage Treatment Works Agency is fascinated by sewage. Actually they both do the same thing: they grow their budgets. They do this by talking about the vital importance of postage stamps and sewage, yes, but building their empire, creeping their mission and employing more people is the main thing they strive to do every day. Evidence for this comes from their public pronouncements which are dominated by demands for greater budgets, and their private conversations, ditto. In all of recorded history, there is probably no instance of a quango requesting a smaller budget.

You will never know the good things your bad policies have prevented from happening. A trivial example: I recently enquired about introducing native wood ants into some woodland that lacked them. Finding out how to do it was not difficult, but if it required permission from Natural England I decided I would not even bother because I knew I would be lost in a bureaucratic maze for months. Fortunately, it turned out I did not need official permission and the project went ahead.

There are no experts on the future. Expertise about the present and the past is very valuable but anybody who tells you that they can predict the future performance of the economy, an epidemic or the climate beyond a very short time horizon, using mathematical models, is selling snake oil. When they get it wrong, they say ah, but the outcome was at least within the confidence intervals of our model – but so was every other outcome. So the predictions that are useful are unreliable and the ones that are reliable are useless: next winter will be colder than this summer (duh!) but next summer may not be.

Innovation is not predictable. If it were it would have happened already. The mobile phone, the search engine and social media all took expert prognosticators by surprise. ‘By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the internet’s impact on the economy will have been no greater than the fax machine’s,’ said Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in 1998. ‘There’s no chance the iPhone is going to get significant market share. No chance,’ said Steve Ballmer, the chief executive of Microsoft, in 2007.


In business, procrastinating can be fatal; in government, not taking a decision can be safer for your career.”

That is a big part of the problem with dysfunctional “democracy” right there. Unfortunately, it applies just as much in bureaucratic Big Business as in bureaucratic government. Even more unfortunately, the readily-available solutions would break a lot of iron rice bowls, and thus are not implemented.

The pessimists are usually wrong.

That is a standard Ridley line, which he has argued well in his book on The Rational Optimist. However, his statement would be more accurate if he said – The pessimists are usually wrong in the long term, and are too often correct in the near term.