Alienation and Regulation

by ukcivilservant

Ian C Elliott recently drew attention to Jimmy Reid’s 1972 address at University of Glasgow, described by The New York Times as one of the greatest speeches of all times. Jimmy’s theme was that ordinary people were increasingly excluded from much decision making, leading to a deep sense of alienation.  I am no political scientist but it does appear that many politicians have responded by offering populist policies, of which ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Drain the Swamp’ are perhaps the most obvious example. 

Jimmy Reid’s speech reminds me that technological change, spurred on by intense competition, can also be highly alienating.  And I would argue that politicians have responded to this form of alienation by offering to defend everyone with increasingly complex regulation. Ironically, however, this can be highly alienating in itself.  So … for those interested in these issues, here are the arguments in a little more detail:-

These extracts provide an effective summary of Mr Reid’s speech, though I do recommend reading the whole thing.  It is quite short and very powerful:

[Alienation] is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control.  It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making.

Society and its prevailing sense of values … partially dehumanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping. The irony is they are often considered normal and well adjusted.

Those of us who refuse to be pawns in their power game can be picked up by their bureaucratic tweezers and dropped in a filing cabinet under ‘M’ for malcontent or maladjusted.  When you think of the [tower blocks around us in Glasgow] it can hardly be an accident that they are as near as one could get to an architectural representation of a filing cabinet.

And here are my own thoughts on technology, competition and all that:

Those of us born in the 1950s and 60s entered a world which was easy to understand. Energy, transport, education, health care and some other goods and services were provided by UK-based monopolies. Bank customers – even large ones – had only current and deposit accounts. Our families were to a great extent self-sufficient. Our houses and water were warmed by coal, gas and electric fires, so there was no need for thermostats and electronic controllers. Washing machines, telephone landlines and TVs became increasingly widespread but it wasn’t too difficult to understand how they worked, and to manage without them, whilst motor cars, for instance, could easily be maintained by anyone willing to wield a spanner and screwdriver. 

We now live in a transformed world in which competition has brought us bewildering choice, delivered by technology which most of us can only dimly understand and which is controlled by huge multinational companies. 

  • Individually, we are astoundingly ignorant of even the basics of the production of food, shelter, clothes, medicine and much else. 
  • Most of us are, quite reasonably, inclined to assume that ‘they’ wouldn’t allow goods into shops unless they were of a certain standard and quality. 
  • Quants employed by financial services companies trade huge quantities of obscure financial instruments whilst their managements do not appreciate the risks that they are taking.
  • Many of these companies, along with other such as railway franchisees, cannot be allowed to fail.
  • Utility and communications companies offer complex contracts with expensive termination provisions.
  • Aircraft and road vehicles are driven by complex algorithms – and will soon be self-driving.
  • Health care, and many medicines, are becoming very expensive.
  • If our electricity – or even just our broadband – fails, we have serious problems.

In short, we are now pretty much totally reliant on the expertise and good faith of others – others who may be subject to commercial and other pressures of which we are only dimly aware. We therefore need help in choosing appropriate energy suppliers, schools, hospitals etc., and we need to be protected from those whose behaviour might cause us harm. These factors surely drove much of the explosive growth in regulation since the 1980s.

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding Government and Understanding Regulation
Twitter @ukcivilservant

Note

A similar argument has been made by Gillian Tett in respect of the growth of regulation in the USA.