The Jungle Book

Many years ago, I designed a new web site for the Adam Smith Institute and they were slightly bemused by my choice of the jungle theme: “It’s a jungle out there,” I explained. And indeed it is, but that’s lucky for us because a jungle with one species of plant and one species of animal would soon become a very unhealthy place to be. Plus boring. A diversity of species and, crucially, the opportunity for new species to emerge and either thrive or fail is healthy for the jungle and everything in it. Everything in it improves over time.

A case in point would be the Royal Mail. A once state-owned inefficient monopoly it is still state-owned but now struggling against a field of private competitors. But it’s an uneven competition, it’s like you’ve taken the king of the beasts and wired his jaws shut. It is burdened with obligations which its private competitors are not and I think that’s unfair, the law of the jungle should apply to everyone equally otherwise it’s not the fittest that survive. However I think one of their newer competitors is worth a closer look. I’ve used Home Delivery Network several times recently and I have to say I’m impressed with what they do. They took a lot of stick in their early days, poor levels of service and lost or damaged parcels, but they’ve really got to grips with that. And that’s what the jungle does. You improve or you die. Any new organisation has teething troubles and they’ve dealt with those, one of which I’m sure was allegations that Royal Mail staff were kicking and damaging HDNL parcels whenever Royal Mail got to handle them. My latest accomplishment was to buy a new book on Amazon one Sunday and have it delivered the next day for a total cost of ¬£4. Including the book.

Adam Smith might have recognised the jungle analogy. He might have called his book “The Jungle Book”. He warned against monopolies and how bad they were and we know all too well today how a monopoly will abuse its market position to stifle competition with predatory pricing or putting pressure on suppliers. We read about these tricks all the time. Adam Smith offered an alternative which was an “invisible hand” guiding the free market through the self-interest of all those active in it. The difference is that a monopoly has all the power, the consumers have none – it can pursue its self-interest while the consumer is powerless.

I would recommend Adam Smith’s book “The Wealth of Nations” except it is heavy going with a lot of examples couched in 18th century trade terms. Far better, I suggest, is Eamonn Butler’s “Adam Smith: A Primer“, and this is the blurb for it:

Despite his fame, there is still widespread ignorance about the breadth of Adam Smith’s contributions to economics, politics and philosophy. In “Adam Smith: A Primer”, Eamonn Butler provides an authoritative introduction to the life and work of this ‘founder of economics’. The author examines not only “The Wealth of Nations”, with its insights on trade and the division of labour, but also Smith’s less well-known works, such as “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, his lectures, and his writings on the history of science. Butler therefore provides a comprehensive, but concise, overview of Adam Smith’s intellectual achievements. Whilst earlier writers may have studied economic matters, it is clear that the scope of Smith’s enquiries was remarkable. In relating economic progress to human nature and institutional evolution he provided a completely new understanding of how human society works, and was very much a precursor of later writers such as Hayek and Popper. Indeed, with poor governance, protectionism and social engineering still commonplace, Smith’s arguments are still highly relevant to policymakers today. “Adam Smith: A Primer” includes a foreword by Sir Alan Peacock, an introduction by Gavin Kennedy and a commentary by Craig Smith.

It’s a free-market trifecta – Eamonn’s book; from Amazon; delivered by HDNL – you can’t lose.

The Problem With Getting Things Done

Madsen Pirie, president and co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute has written a book about how the think tank was founded. Possibly a dull topic, you might think and you’d be wrong. Founded in 1977, I’ve been a fan of it since at the latest 1986 and possibly earlier because of the influence it had on Margaret Thatcher’s government. She was doing all the right things but I was unaware at the time where some of her best ideas were coming from. I came to understand that in 1986 when I met Madsen.

The value of this book isn’t so much that he tells you how they did it as by reading it you can learn how you can do it yourself. All the obstacles Madsen and his co-founder Eamonn Butler had to overcome are still out there today, throwing a spanner in the works of anyone aspiring to influence government policy. I’m sure David Cameron knows the truth of that all too well. The vested interests, reactionary forces, the not-invented-here syndrome, and sheer inertia, all play a part now as they did back then.

The Adam Smith Institute (ASI) is not what’s known as a “hand shaking agency” that effects introductions for a fee, or what I call a “dating agency” which enables business leaders the opportunity to meet the government minister of their dreams. It’s a policy generator. And it’s unashamedly libertarian, so you know which direction they want to see the country go: less government and more free trade. Less Big Brother and more civil liberty. In short, they want more power for Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.

You need to start with a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and focus on that. Don’t get bogged down with the obstacles negative people put in your way; that’s what negative people do. Don’t go straight to government and say, “Hey, this is what you should do.” Instead, identify problems and work out solutions. Do your research and publish reports and papers of high academic standard. Draw people in, attract academics and subject specialists, engage with the media and help them do their job, stir up public interest and create a tide of opinion in favour of your proposals. Present them to government as an already popular solution, even if they didn’t realise they had a problem, and do it in such a way they can claim credit. Remember, this isn’t an exercise in vanity, you don’t want the glory, you just want your policies implemented.

I highly recommend this book to you: Think Tank: The Story of the Adam Smith Institute