The Wiki Man

The case for theft-tanks

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

The Conservative party leadership contest is a milestone for diversity and inclusion. This time, we get to choose between someone who studied philosophy, politics and economics at Lincoln College, Oxford and someone who studied philosophy, politics and economics at Merton College, Oxford. I can barely contain my excitement.

I find the very idea of an undergraduate degree in politics alarming. It is often seen in business that people who complete an MBA straight after university turn out to be spectacularly useless employees, and it’s possible that this unhappy pattern recurs in politics. The reason is simple: there is an order effect at work. It’s one thing to theorise on the basis of practice; quite another to practise on the basis of theory.

The hidden price we pay for demanding theoretical consistency in politics is the loss of those new or oblique ideas which often emerge from tacit learning, experimentation or accident. I used to wonder why political journalists did not make this point – until I discovered they had all read PPE at Oxford too.

There are thousands of changes we could enact to improve the quality of everyday life in Britain which are lost because they do not chime with some predefined ideology or economic theory. I was pleased to see a piece by Professor Paul Collier in The Spectator two weeks ago praising the 19th-century American economist Henry George. George, like Elinor Ostrom (winner of the 2009 Nobel prize in Economics), is one of those intriguing thinkers who, by appealing to people on both the left and right, end up politically homeless. The left vs right dichotomy imposes huge limitations on thought. In reality – Dominic Cummings is right here – people are both much more right-wing and much more left-wing than people inside the political bubble realise.

Yet it isn’t only new ideas which go unexplored. Ideas that have proved popular and successful in other countries almost never get copied. I’ve been to Canada, and did not see people dying on the streets, so it is possible that, if only through the law of averages, the Canucks have got a few things right about healthcare. But does any Canadian experience feature in the discussion of healthcare in the US or UK? Not that I can remember.

A few years ago in Israel, I explained to a business audience how, in call centres, a huge improvement in customer satisfaction arises from offering someone on hold the option to request a call-back rather than making them listen to music for an hour. My brief digression on this topic was met with far less interest than by audiences elsewhere. Someone kindly explained the indifference afterwards: ‘In Israel, it is illegal not to offer callers to large businesses the option of requesting a call-back.’ The law has been in place since 2012. If there are two or more hours left in the business day, the call must be returned within three hours. Otherwise it’s within three hours of the start of the next business day.

This seems to me an extremely sensible law which could be enacted immediately here. After all, it’s not as if we haven’t borrowed laws from that part of the world before.

If there is a politically interested billionaire reading this, I suggest that you fund not a thinktank but a theft-tank. The idea would be to travel the world stealing good ideas from other countries and encouraging their implementation here. If I can discover one good law on a four-day visit to Israel, imagine what you could do in a year.

I used to think it was the generation of new ideas that was important. Actually the transfer and translation of ideas is much more important overall. Food in Britain has not improved only because we have improved British food. It’s because we’ve stolen the best recipes from everyone else.

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