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David Cameron’s sacred cows exposed by Freakonomics

16 May 2014

There’s an interesting bit in the first chapter of Think Like a Freak, (Allen Lane, £12.99), from the Freakonomics duo, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner in which the two Steves get to meet David Cameron and a few dozen of the team just before he takes office. They are there to do what freethinkers do, viz, cut through the guff and muddled thinking that surrounds the big issues.

Well, I can tell you for free that Mr Cameron is unlikely to sue for his name check. They observe breathlessly that “everything about him radiated competence and confidence. He looked to be exactly the sort of man whom deans at Eton and Oxford envision when they are first handed the boy.” Trouble is, the meeting soured early on when Mr C told them, moist eyed, that there were a few things he would be saving from cuts. Like what, they asked. “‘Well, the National Health Service,’ he said, his eyes alight with pride.”

Yes, that is how they write.


Well, it takes them no time to identify the difficulty with that one: “UK health costs had more than doubled over the previous ten years” and, as they observe, “when people do not pay the true costs of something they tend to consume it inefficiently. Think of the last time you sat down at an all you can eat restaurant. How likely were you to eat a bit more than normal? The same thing happens if health care is distributed in a similar fashion.” To make the analogy clear for Mr C, they ask him to imagine “what if, for instance, every Briton were also entitled to a free, unlimited lifetime supply of transportation. That is, what if everyone were allowed to go down to the car dealership whenever they wanted and pick out any new model, free of charge.” Well, that went down a bomb. The smile, they observe, stayed on Mr C’s face but went out of his eyes before he made off.

Now, as the Guardian reviewer of the book said, the analogy is a bit absurd. You do not consume health services like cars. You do not get a consumerist kick out of going to a hospital. Yet the argument is not wholly silly, that if you do not have to pay anything at all for a service, you treat it very differently than if you do. The current argument about whether to charge patients for appointments is based on exactly this premise. But what this little episode makes clear is just how sacred were the sacred cows when Mr Cameron took office. And they have made life very difficult for every other area of government ever since.

There is another interesting episode, before Mr Cameron actually arrives, when the two Steves meet the team, a couple of dozen advisers in their twenties and thirties. One man, however, stood out, “a gentleman, a once and future cabinet minister, significantly more senior… He told us that, upon election, the Cameron administration would fight global warming, tooth and nail…’If it were not for England,’ he continued, ‘the world would not be in the state it is in.’…England, he said, having started the Industrial Revolution, led the rest of the world down the path toward pollution, environmental degradation and global warming. It was therefore England’s obligation to take the lead in undoing the damage.”

Well, three guesses who that might have been. But it’s striking in retrospect; this revelation about the kind of thinking that underlay the Tories’ philosophy in those first heady days in office. If Tory cabinet ministers really did think that England owes the world an historic debt by dint of being the first to industrialise, it sets in context what has followed and the ideology that has invested energy policy in both bits of the Coalition until very recently.

The Freakonomics duo may be tone deaf when it comes to the nuances of British political life, but in identifying this exchange as an instance of alarming dogmatism, they are, in fact, dead right.

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  • Q46

    Monopolies always, always, always are self-serving, spectacularly inefficient and fail to respond to market needs because they don’t need to. But the NHS is different even though the evidence from observation proves otherwise.

    Manmade Catastrophic Global Warming was an hypothesis not evidence based accepted science (the predictions based upon which have been falsified by observation these 17+ years) and the notion that Mankind can control the Natural World was ridiculed by King Cnut over a thousand years ago.

    And these fules are in charge.

  • global city

    When Tory policy concedes the ground and accepts the need to build policy from a cultural Marxist perspective then you know that we’re all in trouble.

    ‘the world would not be in the state it is in.’…England, he said, having started the Industrial Revolution, led the rest of the world down the path toward pollution, environmental degradation and global warming. It was therefore England’s obligation to take the lead in undoing the damage.”

    Gramsciist perspective from the off! Quite outlandish and comes from the half arsed study of PPE at Oxbridge

  • Rhoda Klapp8

    I don’t want unlimited free medical services. I never want to use the NHS and I’d be happy for others to get services and I’ll go on paying in. In fact I do use it, but less is better. Nobody wants go get as much as they can, and nobody will, because it isn’t a self-service restaurant, it is more like an army canteen with a lot of vigilant servers making sure nobody gets more than their share. So the whole argument is daft.

    As is any left-over responsibility for anything at all from the eighteenth century. Nobody made the world adopt prosperity (or call it industrialisation, same thing). And if anybody doesn’t like it the very first thing they should do is resign from it and go and live a life of nature.

    • Ooh!MePurse!

      Superb Rhoda. Perhaps they could recreate an ‘equal and diverse’ feudal society. After all, starvation and bubonic plague are great levellers!

    • balance_and_reason

      Rhoda, you are an enigma.

      • Rhoda Klapp8


    • Fergus Pickering

      I do know that old people who get free medicines have shedloads of the things that they do not use. And that huge numbers of people make appointments with doctors that they then fail to keep.

  • ohforheavensake

    You’re missing the most obvious sacred cow here: at a time when economics (in the academy at least) is frantically back-pedalling away from the nonsensical idea that the market is the measure of everything, Levitt and Dubner are clinging to a naive faith in what the market can do.

    • global city

      But Lefties never concede the truth that the market IS the best measure of most things…. though not all things.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Well, I’ve taken three guesses and still cannot figure out who the numpty was who blathered on about Britain being responsible for the global warming that isn’t occurring. Surely, even Ken Clarke couldn’t be that stupid. Who was it?

    • Alexsandr

      probably the same wazzock who said Europe would run out of fossil fuel in 5 years

    • Jupiter

      It was somebody who had been in cabinet in previous Tory governments which severely narrows it down.

      Ken Clarke was the first name I thouht of too. Couldn’t have been wee Willie Hague, could it?

  • Frank

    This is absurd.

    • Liberty

      He can’t do it because he needs to get elected in 2015 against the inbuilt Labour electoral advantage, the LDs in government and the threat from UKIP. Gove is doing a great job but isn’t popular. Do the same for the NHS and the Tories lose.

      • Frank

        He cannot do it because nobody knows just what he stands for. If he actually came out and said OK this term we will sort out the NHS and DFID and set out proper sane policies, I think that you might be surprised by the public reaction. Instead we are likely to have more BS about how he can reform the EU and save the NHS whilst maintaining international aid. The big difference nowadays is that everyone knows just how many old and vulnerable people have been killed by the NHS.

  • Makroon

    Every week another “inciteful-genius” tome from some smart-alec on the other side of the pond, with more gimmicks, more sound-bites, more snake-oil ….
    Personally, I gave up buying American “business/economics books”, after naively buying “In Search of Excellence”, “Thriving on Chaos”, etc etc, in 1985, with the much-ballyhooed, but long forgotten, “Intrapreneuring” by Gifford Pinchot III (for 16 quid).
    It may be a useful cop-out for journos struggling for a theme, but all of this flotsom-tosh from ‘the land of trivia’ can safely be ignored.
    Time to grow up Melanie ?

  • Tony_E

    The idea that our industrialisation leaves us with a debt to the world over environmental issues is absurd.

    We also led the way in cleaning up our own environment, if others did not choose to follow that is hardly our responsibility.

    As for the NHS – think back to the Olympic opening ceremony and you will see how intractable the problem is. All Labour ever have to do is yell ‘Privatisation’ and you can hear the Dog Whistles blowing from Lands End to John O Groats. Unfortunately, even the people who should know it’s unsustainable can’t admit it.

    • global city

      It takes as it’s start point that capitalism and material wellbeing are inherently evil…. a concession from which you can only conclude with it’s destruction…. as I said, a classic Gramsci narrative trap, and these ‘Liberal’ conservatives have totally given the intellectual base up to these tricks.

      The Cameroon ‘Modernisers’ are a disaster.

      At least in the 1970’s our commentariat know about these tactics.

    • itdoesntaddup

      Yes we passed the Clean Air Act in 1956. Yet since Miliband we have been committed to plastering the countryside with concrete foundations for windmills, exporting our industry to countries which produce far more emissions than we did – for which we are plainly not responsible. We’re just idiots.

  • Damon

    Oh, honestly, Melanie. Do you really think DC is oblivious to the the inefficiencies of the NHS.

    He knew that the Tories are often suspected of being half-hearted in their support for socialized healthcare. (Evil capitalist, twirl of the waxed moustache, insidious privatization, etc, etc.) He had to pay lip service to the sacred cow in order to get elected.

    Like all good politicians, he knows that you sometimes have to muddle and fudge in order to gain power. Without being elected, you can’t do any of the really important stuff you want to do.

    Strategically, DC was quite correct to guarantee funding for the NHS. By doing so, he was able to get into No 10 and begin sorting out the economic excrement which the socialists left us in. And you see the result now – with day after day of golden economic statistics.

    • Frank

      This is also rubbish. He was facing the most unpopular prime minster in decades. A cat with a sign saying “Not Gordon Brown” could have got elected. David Cameron had a once in lifetime chance to get elected without being trapped by any inconvenient obligations. Despite this, he saddles himself with loads of obligations and still fails to get a proper majority. What does that tell you about his appeal?

      • Damon

        ‘He was facing the most unpopular prime minster in decades. A cat with a sign saying “Not Gordon Brown” could have got elected.’
        Quite right. I was forgetting how popular Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Major and Blair all were, at the end of their respective tenures of office.

  • Span Ows

    He only made it a sacred cow to get elected: this is the stupidity of the UK when it comes to these things. NHS, BBC: not revered, not efficient, not worth it: current net spending on NHS is 110 billion and money spent per capita on NHS services in England is about GBP 2,000: more than most insurance policies? Don’t even get me started on the BBC….

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