The Wiki Man

Why the NHS is like a kitten

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

Of all the strange behaviours of the rich, owning horses long struck me as the most bizarre. A horse, when you think about it, is a hopelessly unsuccessful attempt to combine a pet with a form of transportation. So whenever anyone mentioned that their daughter wanted a horse, I always recommended they bought a Range Rover and a kitten instead. The two would cost much less to run, and provide far more in the way of utility, pleasure and companionship.

Or at least that’s what I used to think. I always loved cats and thought horses rather stupid. But then it dawned on me: cats have effectively hacked us.

The relationship between a horse and a human is a reciprocal one. They perform useful work and we supply them with food and shelter. It’s a straightforward business deal. That too was once the relationship we had with cats — they would control vermin in exchange for housing. But in time cats craftily developed a means to exploit a bug in the software of the human brain. By producing the purr and the winsome ‘silent miaow’ (two features believed to have evolved only after domestication) Felis catus found a vulnerability in our mental code: suddenly it was absolved from performing useful work around the house; the deluded owner would now supply all its needs in exchange for the illusion of affection.

Like many successful hacks, the cat hack exploits the human capacity for self-delusion. We desperately want to believe our cats adore us, and so we are surprisingly eager to interpret their self-serving behaviour as though it were motivated by love. Cats are the courtesans of the animal world.


In this respect, the cat hack is similar to the unconscious mental hack worked on us by the NHS, welfare programmes and international aid: we are so eager to believe in the value of good intentions that any mention of self-interest or adverse consequences in discussing such activities is met with self-righteous fury. We can’t handle too much reality — any more than we can handle the idea that our cat only pretends to love us, and then mostly when it’s hungry.

Now I think the principle of free healthcare at the point of need is a great idea. My grandfather spent most of his life working as a doctor for the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, from which the local MP Aneurin Bevan derived the whole idea for the NHS. But I still find the resistance to any debate about the NHS slightly mad.

‘Is it possible that some social advocacy and social justice efforts result in… pernicious effects on a societal scale — so that efforts to build cooperation instead inhibit it? We often do not know, because well-meaning advocates have made raising those questions a taboo.’

This quotation is from a recent book called Pathological Altruism, which is apparently the vogueish new scientific term for this cat hack phenomenon. It is suddenly attracting attention in fields as diverse as psychology, evolutionary theory and public policy, following a paper by the academic Barbara Oakley. Unfortunately for George Osborne, the book lists well-intentioned but ‘ultimately catastrophic’ attempts to promote wider home ownership among the worst recent examples of ‘altruism bias’.

G.K. Chesterton clearly understood the problem: in Orthodoxy he wrote ‘When a religious scheme is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.’

It is near impossible to cut funding for the road to hell when the pavers have such obviously good intentions.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Jacob Taylor
    • rorysutherland

      This is astoundingly good. He is absolutely right about the opportunity cost.

      Worst of all, I have just learned that, as a “cost saving” measure, the plans to redevelop Euston Station as part of the HS2 Plan have been shelved. Yet the crappiness of Euston, and its appalling connections to the London Underground, are a bigger deterrent to travelling to Manchester than the duration of the journey. Better to improve the station and leave the trains the same.

  • E Hart

    There is often a pathological flaw in the pathological altriusm thesis. What is the intent of those making the changes? Doublespeak is the lingua franca of all non-popular reforms and we should be mindful of supposed benefits or conflation with the public interest when the machinations of the commercial imperative are so often driven by manifest nonsense. Health care is a clear case where loyalties shouldn’t be divided. The US example, and others like it, show that the rentier culture leads straight to an exceptionalist trough, intractable self-interest, runaway costs and lack of coverage – hence Obamacare. All things considered, though, I agree with the premise. All systems need to evolve but not at the expense of their raison d’etre. Nothing kills them more certainly than that.

    As for tigers they do purr and use the ‘winsome miaow’ (relatively speaking), yet no lap, chair or life could bear their fearful savagery.

    • rorysutherland

      I should really have researched this purr thing more: http://youtu.be/eHZJrx7RZ2w

      • E Hart

        Not to worry. Cats have some remarkable attributes. I always knew when my mother was due to arrive home (by car) ten minutes before the event. This was entirely down the cat’s behaviour: pricking up of ears; movement onto window sill with view of the lane over distance of 100m; recognition of car colour/engine noise; off to back door; furring of legs; food.

  • george

    I’m really not convinced by the premise of this article, ingenious though the subsequent analogy is.

    I’m not a ‘cat’ person and have never personally known cats, never mind spent much time around them. But one summer at our rental chalet, we heard the cry — and it was the most heartrending crying — of a lost or abandoned cat, wandering around the mountain. He could feed himself well enough: cats do. He was glossy and beautiful. Hunger wasn’t his problem: loneliness was. My other half tried to tempt this cat to come near with nice turkey cuts, but no dice. It took a lot of patient coaxing and talkings-to before that cat would enter the chalet and eventually spend the night (in the bed, natch). If that cat had just been after food, he would have taken the turkey and run.

  • rorysutherland

    No, I still love cats. Partly because, unlike dogs, they never really defer to you. Winston Churchill’s comment on pigs is also interesting: “Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you: pigs treat you as an equal.”

    • george

      In that case, my girl must be two-fifths dog, one-fifth cat, and two-fifths pig.

    • Eddie

      Cats are poetry in motion; dogs are gibberish in neutral.
      Those who like giving orders and being obeyed to boost their fragile egos like
      dogs (e.g.Hitler); poets, artists, mavericks and loners prefer cats (e.g. Churchill).
      But the only mystery about cats is that they ever became a domestic pet. And the accusation that cats are responsible for any decline in wildlife numbers fails to take account of our own overpopulation, with more roads, more paved-over front gardens, and less wild wasteland for birds and small mammals to thrive in.
      What this has to do with the wonderful NHS is anyone’s guess, but, despite its faults, I can’t see a better system anywhere in the world.

      • george

        You obviously don’t know any superior dogs — but that stands to reason, as they wouldn’t know you. As for what you can’t see: did you get your glasses from the NHS?

  • Arnold Swift

    Having worked for the NHS for years I know that the problem with the NHS is that it is a Soviet system. A Soviet system that has reverential status to the lunatic left.

    The sooner it is broken up, the better

    • mikewaller

      I take a totally different message from the cat/NHS connection. My family having owned a number of both cats and dogs, I have had extensive experience of vets and what they charge. My conclusion? Thank God for the NHS for all its faults.

      It is not having to live with a free loader that is the main problem with modern cat ownership. The vermin control was fine as long as cats weren’t given anything more than titbits on top. Giving them full bed and board as we do now, however, has had a terrible effect on the normal predator/prey ratio. In the natural world, the usual balance is few predators, many prey. By creating cat-welfare-bums whilst retaining their predator instincts, we have enabled cats to devastate the small mammal and avian populations. Herewith a poem dealing with one experience I had:

      Death in the Morning

      Like much else in nature, the need for food
      Explains why the fledgling rocks back and forth.
      In the nest, it’s the most active of the brood
      That’s fed the best. A chick that bobs will grow.

      There’s no food now; though mother’s here. She lies
      By the door. Half stripped of feathers, broken-
      Bodied, hopelessly past flight; when she tries,
      There’s a horror of ineffective fluttering.

      Machine sleek on canned butchery, my cat
      Has done its worst. Taken outside, the mother’s
      Soon dispatched.The chick, less mauled, blind and fat,
      Tries what it knows and bobs in mute appeal.

      Two blows and its done; certain, swift and kind.
      So why’s that chick still bobbing in my mind?

      • rorysutherland

        And as for New Zealand, where many of the birds are flightless…..

  • Smithersjones2013

    I like cats. They provide excellent exercise for my dogs.

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