28 May 2021

Cummings the ‘people person’ doesn’t see the real problem with government

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Dominic Cummings is a people person. Not in the traditional sense of enjoying being around folk the whole time. His testimony on Wednesday showed the contempt he sees for those he deems fools, including many involved in politics. No, Cummings is a people person in the sense that his worldview of government centres on the importance of having talented and competent individuals in the right positions, with clear lines of accountability. This, rather than the size or scope of government, is deemed crucial to its success.

In his seven hours in front of the select committee he admitted that there had been a UK government “system failure” where Covid-19 was concerned. Pushed on why, though, his answers always circled back to the mistakes of individuals, groups, or the wrong people being in the wrong roles. Boris Johnson was unsuited to be Prime Minister. Matt Hancock pursued a daft testing target for media coverage. Behavioural scientists spread BS memes about what the British people would or wouldn’t tolerate. Yes, at one stage he said the Prime Minister was let down in the first wave by the whole structure of government. But drilling down, even this was just a case of having the wrong experts. His own “brilliant” external advisors helped sound the alarm on the errors of SAGE groupthink.

There’s truth to all this, of course. But it speaks to a point I’ve made about Cummings before: he is a progressive in the old technocratic sense. If only the right people are in charge or leading the way – especially brilliant scientists, data scientists, and mathematicians –government would work pretty effectively. Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this cult of good leadership or management came when he said that Boris Johnson would have ideally appointed Cambridge physicist Mark Warner as a “kind of dictator” with “kingly authority” for Covid-19, given otherwise “no one gets to grips with who is actually in charge”.

Now, nobody doubts that competence in government is important and that accountability is needed. Too many chefs can both spoil a broth and also lead to buck-passing – the Spiderman meme he highlighted. Yet in this focus on characters and their skills, I can’t help thinking Cummings is both basking in hindsight bias and failing to appreciate the broader, structural factors that drive government failure.

We can now look back with certainty on issues over which there was vast uncertainty at the time. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the early border closures, green-lighting of widespread testing, and mask-wearing that East Asian countries did, spooked by dalliances with SARS and MERS, could have significantly eased the death toll here. That’s because with vaccines out already, it is now clear that suppression applied earlier could have potentially saved tens of thousands of lives.

But other experts got this really wrong for a reason. While it should have always been obvious that a delay brought you time to get testing, treatments, and hospital capacity-building on the go, there is a different world where a vaccine didn’t work against the pathogen we faced, and on-off lockdowns really did create terrible winter waves under a never-ending purgatory of restrictions that chilled life for well over a year before being abandoned by a weary populace.

The roll-out of vaccines, in other words, has solidified our understanding of the relative the costs and benefits of actions. While I have taken similar stances to Cummings on the early tardiness, the bungling of testing, the disaster of leaning into reopening in late summer, and much more, it wasn’t as obvious as it now seems what the most enduring approach would have been in spring 2020. That’s why, given any future catastrophe will be very different from Covid-19, we should be more interested in retrospectives that dig into the processes and mental frameworks used for making decisions, rather than re-running the detailed calls.

But there’s a more fundamental point here. Governments clearly don’t just fail because leaders make bad decisions or the people in the civil service have the wrong skills. They also tend to fail across a range of domains because they don’t have the intimate knowledge of our circumstances or what the effects of their policies will be. They fail because they are unwieldy conglomerates with vast numbers of functions that are often in tension. They fail because they grant themselves monopoly power which crowds out private initiative. They fail because electoral incentives, as we’ve seen to our cost, push against preparing for high-risk, low-probability events, instead favouring short-termism and relief. And they fail too because politics is not disciplined by the sorts of error-correction mechanisms that the private sector faces.

The thing that I find so paradoxical about Cummings is that, time and again, he’s had a front row seat to both expert failure in general and the inadequacies of government in particular. And yet his propensity to support the state playing a greater role in economic life appears undimmed. Rather than bitter experience leading him to question the existing scope of government or to reconsider whether further expansions may replicate the system failures we’ve seen with Covid-19, the agenda that animates him entails granting the government more power over science, research, and technology, all buttressed, naturally, by significant autonomy going to scientific philosopher kings. It’s almost as if in his utopia, politics and all the distractions it brings are extinguished. Very smart people are merely left by governments to get on with whatever missions to solve problems their democratically-elected guardians decree.

When Cummings published his Odyssean education proposal back in 2013, a well-known Conservative MP texted me to say “I’m not sure Dom has ever read his Hayek”. What was most striking about his testimony is not so much hearing that government is dysfunctional. It’s that, in spite of that chaos, the man himself retains a touching faith that with some decent appointments, a bit of civil service reform, and higher-calibre politicians, the state would itself become an effective technocracy. If only, of course, the right people were there to oversee that transition. 

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Ryan Bourne is Chair For The Public Understanding Of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.