IT’S conference season, and the airwaves are full and the newspaper pages thick with a barrage of policy ideas. Every would-be chancellor and tyro PM wants to make their mark on the nation with their energy, their zeal to do something that will make life better. They’re all wrong.
Half the trouble of the world, Pascal, once wrote, comes from an inability to sit quietly in a room by oneself. Right now that sounds like an underestimate. Most of the trouble seems to come from overactive politicians. They stimulate here, nanny there, regulate the other and before you know it there’s a net of rules pressing down on everyday life – and the economy too – so that you can hardly move without having to consult a politician’s approval first. As De Tocqueville put it in Democracy in America, “Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannise, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Politicians want to make a name for themselves, but the truth is history doesn’t favour the shepherds and the micro-managers. Philip II of Spain, known as the chief clerk of the Spanish empire, spent almost every day of his kingship at a desk in the Escorial, keeping busy but never stopping his revenues from being double his expenditures. As Rodney Stark writes in his wonderful book The Victory of Reason: “Ironically, perhaps no monarchs in history were more conscientious, honest, or hardworking than Charles V and his son Philip II. Between them they built the Spanish empire and ruled it for more than eighty years. Nearly every day they rose early and worked diligently at administering this sprawling entity. Had they been wastrels or playboys, they might have done much less damage to the economies in their charge. In contrast, the French kings were relatively lazy and far less sincere, and under their regime France fared rather better than Spain in terms of economic progress.”
Instead of toiling away to impress us like Charles and Philip, wouldn’t it be refreshing to find a few politicians standing up for their work-life balance and making a name for themselves by doing less to interfere?
If they did, they would be in the very best of company. John James Cowperthwaite, the legendary architect of Hong Kong’s light touch approach to government, was a man who became feted for what he didn’t do, not for his policies. He even turned his back on that first love of the technocrat – statistics – believing that collecting data was just the first step to instituting all sorts of interfering programmes in response. Better not to even begin down that troublesome road.
The result was surely, to the world’s buzzing devotees of business, a kind of miracle. An island with no natural resources, blessed only with a lazy politician, became – and remained – a booming economic success, its per capita growth exceeding Britain’s by 1992. It is a constant reminder, which is good to recollect in conference time, that in a healthy economy it is the businessmen who are busy while the politicians have the good sense to take it easy.