People like to cite the rule of law as a crucial institution for civilisation. Often while j-walking or driving over the speed limit.
In truth, laws can be incredibly stupid. And civilisation rests on our ability to ignore the worst of them, while following the important norms that haven’t been legislated…yet.
But what if we get that balance wrong? What if we obey absurd laws and lose sight of the norms that actually make civilisation function?
After all, our political leaders and civil servants did, as we highlighted back on 7 April…
What they did while you were in lockdown is nothing new
So, the director general of the Cabinet Office’s COVID-19 Taskforce was fined for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules. And the government’s former ethics chief was fined for breaking them too. The person who wrote the Covid rules and the person in charge of ethics… hmmm.
This is easily laughed off and forgotten about. It’s just the latest in a very long line of similar incidents that took place around the world, although the UK does seem to be particularly plagued by hard-partying leaders and civil servants, for some reason.
At one point, a locked-down home making a suspicious amount of alcohol-induced party-like noise put up a sign in its front window that read “Cabinet Meeting in Progress”. It was presumably designed to ward off any enforcement of the lockdown policies against the partygoers.
And on the streets outside parliament, Boris-Johnson-mask-wearing revellers toasted their prime minister with pints – plastic cups, of course. No policeman would fine someone wearing a Boris mask for drinking in contravention of lockdown rules, after all.
But I want to dig a little deeper into this issue to ask you some questions that go beyond the Covid frivolities that took place in the halls of government while you were sheltering in your home, or being chased by the police for failing to do so.
If the Covid rules were a good idea, you might think that abiding by them would be a good idea, too.
What does it tell us about the rules, then, when those who wrote them don’t follow them?
If the people writing the rules are attending the boozy social events which those rules are designed to stop, are those rules needed? Are they proportional? Are they based on science?
If the person in charge of ethics doesn’t think following the rules applies to the person in charge of ethics, then who do they apply to? And how will the person in charge of ethics apply those ethics in similar circumstances?
If those who write and enforce the rules are not following them, then why were you?
This combination of questionable rules and hypocrisy in not applying them is nothing new. The US Congress had its own bootlegger with storage on site during prohibition, after all. The Royal Navy quaffed French brandy while hunting down smugglers for bringing the same stuff to the UK during the Napoleonic Wars. JFK hoarded Cuban cigars before imposing the embargo against them. And so on and so forth.
The gaps between policy, reality, enforcement and hypocrisy are an inherent part of government.
But if the inability of politicians and civil servants to follow their own rules reveals something about the efficacy of those rules, which other rules might have been completely pointless too? Rules less likely to catch out politicians and civil servants than bans on parties.
How much of the damage done by Covid rules was unnecessary?
And why stop at Covid rules? What else is going on out there that we don’t know about?
I mean, if the head of ethics and the person who wrote the pandemic rules are supposedly risking their lives by breaking the rules in order to have some fun, what might other civil servants and policymakers be up to in less dramatic arenas?
We occasionally hear the stories. Debacles at the DVLA, for example. The NHS maternity ward horrors.
One of the first times I met Nigel Farage, he told a funny story about a TV debate he’d participated in. While on stage and debating the merits of wind energy, he suddenly realised that all his opponents had family that stood to personally benefit from a wind energy boom in the UK…
That’s the sort of cronyism and corruption we laugh about in other countries. And yet it’s rife in the UK, too.
Over in the financial sphere, we have reports that the Bank of England (BoE) governor fell asleep “numerous times” while in his previous role as head of the Financial Conduct Authority during hearings about pension mis-selling to steel workers.
Then he was caught out by the inflation spike after joining the BoE. Now he’s warning about a worse shock to the economy than the 1970s.
But nothing will ever top what the Australian financial services regulator did in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. It hired as its new leader the very man who created the crisis by way of securitising residential mortgages! Cue a Royal Commission into the consequences of a lack of enforcement against dodgy mortgage lending by banks during his tenure…
Back to the underlying issue. If we were aware of all the rule-breaking, scandals and hypocrisy of governments, what would the consequences be? Would anything change?
We’re no longer surprised by the scandals that do get exposed, if we ever were.
It seems to me that governments are led and staffed by deeply incompetent, dishonest people who consider themselves to be above the law and well above you.
And yet, the people clamour for them to do more. More to keep us safe, healthy and solve our problems.
It’s an odd state of affairs, if you ask me. In fact, it’s our ability to move on to the next big thing the government promises to fix that is the inherent flaw in the system. If we ever thought through and looked back at what they got up to in the past, we wouldn’t trust their latest schemes one bit.
If ever there was a time for people to wake up about all this, it’d be the pandemic. And yet, the opposite seems to have happened.
The clamour for the government to do more only gets louder as each of the government’s debacles unfold.
The government’s housing bubbles are solved by first-home-buyer incentives. Its student-loan debacle is settled by debt-forgiveness programmes. The government’s long-standing subsidisation of dirty power is handled by cutting taxes on it. The government-imposed excessive costs of childcare need government subsidies. The government’s lockdown damage needs government bailouts. The government-imposed lack of domestic energy production is solved by importing under government programmes.
Covid was just the most obvious example of what happens every day in the halls of government on a smaller scale.
Even parts of the media are unable to avoid blushing over Covid though. A Danish newspaper apologised for not questioning the government’s data and narratives during the pandemic. The Mail On Sunday has been running a series of articles questioning the basic assumptions about the pandemic policies and the science upon which they were based.
But the people have moved on, and want the government to try and solve the problems it created during the pandemic. Shortages, inflation, an energy crisis and a food crisis. The government must help!
Calls continue for Germany to nationalise energy suppliers, Spain to ban firing employees because of unaffordable energy, the UK to continue its disastrous policy of energy price caps, the US government to release its strategic petroleum reserves, and every government to lighten the tax on fuel, without anyone actually pondering whether this latest intervention is really a good idea, and whether it ’ll have it will have the intended effect once the government bureaucracy has spent time trying to implement it.
Milton Friedman explained long ago that, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results”. If we stopped making this mistake, how many government policies would ever see the light of day?
And if we judge the people who lead us by what they do, instead of what they say or the laws they pass or the effects of those laws, how many of them would be elected or chosen to lead?
But the political system ticks on, with its nincompoops and hypocrites and their policies to solve the problems they created. Even what was exposed during the pandemic hasn’t changed things. Perhaps it has made the politicians and civil servants more daring than ever.
Editor, Fortune & Freedom