The dangers of yearning for a simple life

22 September 2012

What is this mania for simplification? Listening to Nigel Farage struggling to explain UKIP tax policy on the Today programme this week made me wonder why, in so many areas of policy, politicians of the right have such a fetish for making things less complicated than they really are. UKIP’s message is the very essence of this tendency and in Farage’s case you have to wonder whether he’s just too dim to entertain a complex idea.

It is no surprise that UKIP’s comfortingly simple message is gaining support, but we should be wary of political oversimplification in times of crisis.

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This tendency is not restricted to UKIP. The government is learning that simplification of systems can sometimes be very problematic indeed. Something very peculiar is going on at the Department for Work and Pensions, arguably the most important ministry beyond the Treasury in the present climate. The simplification of the benefit system via Universal Credit and the Welfare to Work system with the creation of a single Work Programme to replace Labour’s plethora of schemes, seemed like a fine idea in opposition. But guess what? Sometimes there is a reason for complexity – people, even people on benefits, are not all the same. The Youth Contract was introduced after Lib Dems in the government recognised that a single monolithic Work Programme would not crack youth unemployment. Now it is stumbling because of Chris Grayling’s insistence that it had to be delivered by the giant prime contractors such as G4S, A4e and Serco.

I have absolutely no doubt that Iain Duncan Smith is a man of principle, whose Christian faith has led him to believe he has a personal mission to address welfare dependency in this country. But why did David Cameron trust him with this task? Mr Duncan Smith himself recognised that his leadership of the Conservative Party was less than inspiring. His decision, nearly a decade ago, to resign was driven by an unusual degree of self-awareness. Without it, there would have been no revival in Tory fortunes.

Now he needs to show a similar degree of humility and re-engineer his welfare reforms to recognise the necessarily messy complexities of human existence.

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Show comments
  • Minekiller

    Simple income based tax. Tax consumption. Leave it at that.

  • Eli

    No re-engineering of society can be complex enough to keep up with the messy complexities of human existence. If the fundamental premise of government is that human existence is complicated, then government would back off, leaving the free market’s price-mechanism to signal human beings how to act for their own welfare. Society will be self-regulating. Simple, effective and inevitably, but justly, messy.

  • Steve H, probably.

    If we really do need 152 distinct government benefits to tackle poverty as this author seems to imply then this country is doomed to slide into further relative economic decline.

  • Hugh

    You seem to have simplified your blog post to such an extent that it no longer contains any hint as to why Duncan Smith’s proposals (or Farage’s for that matter) are actually wrong.

    • Ron Todd

      I think the argument is that people and their circumstances vary so much that any simple benefits system will end up being unfair to some.

  • In2minds

    Simple systems would mean fewer public servants, that would be awful.

  • Realist

    I’m all for simplification. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with legal matters (and that includes the plethora of taxation rules and regulations) will know just what a maze of complexity the whole deal has become. But then, those in charge would hardly want the ‘common herd’ to actually understand what they are on about – can’t have those who vote for them to become too knowledgeable can we, old boy?

  • Asmodeus

    The more simple everything is made for them the less human beings will actually need intelligence.They will devolve slowly as a result while the machines on which they depend will become more intelligent and eventually replace them.

    • Daniel Maris

      So you’ve mastered the 12000 pages of the UK tax regulations have you?

      • Asmodeus

        I have not mastered Chinese either ,so what .

        • Daniel Maris

          Laws we are expected to obey should be comprehensible.

          We are not expected to learn Chinese.

          • Kevin

            That is right. The maxim, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse”, has ceased to be feasible since about the end of the Second World War.

  • Brian Lovett

    “I have absolutely no doubt that Iain Duncan Smith is a man of principle, “,

    No! He is a mean spiteful little non-entity who by a nasty twist of fate found himself with a bit of power, and he wears cheap shoes.

    And forget the Christian bit, if he came across Jesus he would tell him to smarten up and get a proper job!

    • Ron Todd

      If I came across somebody claiming to be the son of an all powerful sky god I would hope I would have the courage to say more than get a proper job to him.

      • Kevin

        It would not have taken any courage to mock a man who was being executed by the authorities.

      • Kevin

        And since you brought up the subject: materialism is cobblers.

  • Chris Morriss

    As Einstein is famous for saying: “Simplify everything as far as possible, but no further”.
    I think there’s a very great deal more simplification this government needs to do, starting with Income Tax and National Insurance.

    • Daniel Maris

      I agree. It’s nothing to do with the actual tax take or its progressiveness.

      There is a strong argument for a (real) universal credit (for every citizen) and a single tax rate. That will immediately restore full incentive to work.

      • Koakona

        Interesting, quite an agreeable policy.

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