The allure of the simple

Last night I went to a Limmy book event at the Glee Club in Birmingham. I didn’t really know what to expect, but he was really funny, and the venue was brilliant. He tweets plenty on politics, but usually not particularly seriously, and he summed it up last night as being because “nothing ever happens” and “nobody is accountable for anything”, although he clearly has socialist-leaning views. His lack of conviction in the political system is understandable given what has happened recently, but slightly disappointing.

Additionally, I recently read on Africa is Country an article about why Ghanaians are disillusioned with democracy and long for a stable (male) dictatorship. I recollect people always saying that the “best form of governance is a benevolent dictator”, but that no dictatorships remain benevolent for long. To me, this attitude harks towards an almost religious desire to put our faith in a single, omniscient being, like a god. The reality of the world as we live it, however, is that no-one has that perfection, both morally or intellectually, and that our society is, by necessity, a complex system.

It made me think about poor disciplinary procedures, like for students in universities on non-academic charges (e.g. the Warwick Group Chat case), and for NHS whistleblowers, and highlighted a real issue in most cases of poor disciplinary processes: the lack of independence (and sometimes anonymity) in the process). The political principal of separation of powers is promoted particularly to reduce abuse of power and hierarchies, and the UK has often had a weak, but functioning, separation of judiciary from government/assembly (which are poorly separated).

When it comes to any organisation, I believe that this is the simplest form of separation that is required, and if independent “judiciary” or arbitrators are not available, then the system will almost inevitably fail. In the cases of the NHS, the only thing that helps the system is public interest in the cases which sometimes blow up, like repeated examples in recent years, not least the Mid-Staffordshire crisis. In many organisations, even more complex systems are required to account for different levels of bureaucracy and power, and the solutions are highly likely to be non-unique (and changing with time).

The nature of these solutions is not what I am interested in, what I want to question is whether humans have an innate fear of things beyond their understanding, and like to find simple answers, even to problems which have been shown to require complex solutions in the past. Other examples beyond organisation structure could include government debt discussions (i.e. recent obsessions with reducing national debt and deficit, using simple examples like household debt), or arguments against liberalisation of markets because of the belief that there are singe optimal solutions. The second example is one that I often subscribe to, but like a lot of issues, an additional complexity lies in the fact that certain solutions work better for different market opportunities. For examples, monopoly products or services are almost certainly best provided by the government, but the management of these monopolies could involve internal complexities to encourage innovation or efficiency. That said, when these are poorly implemented they can undermine any case for either liberalisation or nationalisation! (e.g. funding issues in the England & Wales NHS with its internal market).

Recent trends in individualism have made people more isolated from one-another, and yet access to amounts of data unimaginable to past generations have led the public to feel more confident in their personal understanding of different scenarios. This is not truly new, but the consequence of it has been a desire to break government and politics down into impossibly simple solutions, the UK’s 2016 EU referendum a case-in-point.

My view is that simple is good, too-good-to-be-true simple is just dangerous, and novel ways of countering the peddling of misleading mistruths need to be developed. The other aspect that runs beneath this comment on simplicity, is that individuals need to have faith in the different skills of others, and not believe that we need “superheros” to lead us, who have expertise in everything. Elon Musk is perhaps a good example of the modern-day superhero that people want.

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