The cleverer the arguments required to justify a plan, the worse it is. I give by way of example a characteristically ingenious article in The Times by the soon-to-be Lord Finkelstein, explaining why it really does make sense to sink upwards of £50bn into the HS2 rail project.
Finkelstein argued that this scheme is exactly analogous to the late Steve Jobs’s design for the Hollywood studios of the animation business Pixar: putting everyone in one central atrium, rather than scattered among many buildings, “would maximise the number of creative encounters”.
In their new book The Blunders of Our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe identify the desire of ministers for the most spectacular and gold-plated solutions to apparent problems — instead of low-profile tweaking — as one of the principal causes of disastrous decisions.
This tendency obviously predates the period covered by King and Crewe — the past 35 years. Adam Smith noted in the 18th century: “The proud minister of an ostentatious court may frequently take pleasure in executing a work of splendour and magnificence, such as a great highway . . . But to execute a great number of little works . . . which . . . have nothing to recommend them but their extreme utility, is a business which appears . . . too mean and paltry to merit the attention of so great a magistrate.”
It is in this spirit that the transport economist Richard Wellings has produced a series of pamphlets for the Institute of Economic Affairs. Along with other HS2 sceptics, he argues that less grandiose means could deal with the problems allegedly identified by the transport department: these would include increasing the length of Intercity trains and extending platform lengths to accommodate them. This approach also has the merit of derailing the industrial lobbyists, whose instinct for detecting the teat of public subsidy is as unerring as the greediest infant in pursuit of its mother’s milk.
Read the full article here.