The ridiculous Digby Jones has tweeted:
Hey Mr Tusk. Those who pushed for Brexit did have a plan but it required your lot not to bully the UK, for Remoaners & the Establishment not to sabotage the wish of the majority & for Jezza’s mob not to play tribal party politics with a major National issue.
Many have pointed out that this is imbecilic: a plan that only works if people behave exactly as you’d wish them to rather than how they are likely to is no plan at all: it is merely a voice in your head.
When somebody is saying something very stupid, however, it’s a fair bet that ideology is involved. The ideology here is not just the fanatical Brexitism that induced wishful thinking but perhaps something else. It’s an aspect of managerialism – a belief that other people are pawns to be moved at will rather than conscious agents with motivations of their own*.
The most egregious examples of the errors of seeing others as pawns come from the failure of top-down targets, as described by Jerry Muller in The Tyranny of Metrics. For example, academics' pressure to publish has contributed to mediocre research and the replication crisis. Schools’ targets have led to endless revision and a focus upon the marginal student to the neglect of both the strongest and weakest. Waiting-time targets distort clinical priorities. Immigration targets deter foreign students. Sales targets encourage workers to mis-sell financial products, cook the books and increase banks’ risk exposure. And so on. Such errors result from an unthinking assumption that people can be easily manipulated like pawns, rather than have their own motives and agency and ways of responding.
This error can also lead to motivation crowding out. If you try to manipulate people by giving them financial incentives, you might displace (pdf) other motivations such as professional pride or altruism.
Julian Le Grand has highlighted the dangers here:
The relationship between the assumptions and the realities of human motivation and agency…are crucial to the success or otherwise of public policy…Policies that, consciously or unconsciously, treat people as pawns may lead to demotivated workers. (Motivation, Agency and Public Policy, p2)
It would be wrong to attribute this error only to managerialists, however. Many of us are prone to what David Navon has called the egocentric framing error. I suspect it explains the well-known IPO effect, whereby newly-floated shares generally do badly in the months after issuance: it’s because investors under-appreciate the fact that owners choose to sell their business when it is mostly likely to be over-priced.
It is, however, what we are seeing with Brexit. Chris Grey has long complained that Brexiters pay insufficient attention to the motives and interests of EU negotiators. John Humphrys perhaps gave us the silliest example of this when he suggested that Ireland leave the EU.
What’s going on here is a form of narcissism or psychopathy – an inability to empathize with others and an urge to see them as mere pawns serving one’s own interests. This is why I say it’s an aspect of managerialism: narcissists and psychopaths are over-represented in boardrooms.
It is, however, nothing new. This has been the attitude of tyrants and despots down their centuries. As the young Marx said:
Despotism's only thought is disdain for mankind, dehumanized man; and it is a thought superior to many others in that it is also a fact. In the eyes of the despot, men are always debased. They drown before his eyes and on his behalf in the mire of common life
We should therefore, perversely, be grateful to Jones. He has reminded us of one of the overlooked costs of inequality – that it creates and sustains among the powerful a contempt for other people.
* Good management, of course, is wholly aware of the dangers of treating people as pawns. We must, however, distinguish been management and managerialism – the latter is an ideological distortion of the former.