Equality in principle is very different from equality in practice. As we’re seeing in the Greensill affair – and as a French writer cynically and beautifully put it many years ago. And US officialdom catches up, at last, on surface transmission of the Bug.
Short thought: Back when I was a reporter covering business, I spent a lot of time talking to C-suite executives. To help mitigate the risk of getting overawed, a colleague gave me advice I’ve always recalled.
The only difference between you and the rich and powerful, she said, was that they’ve got more money and power than you do.
There are countless layers to unpack in that advice, and the more you peel away the better it is.
But although it’s useful, it isn’t entirely true. French writer Anatole France captured it pithily more than a century ago:
La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.
Which translates roughly as:
The law, in its majestic equality, prohibits rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing loaves of bread.
In other words: money and power do, sadly, have a quality all their own. And law, and rules, inevitably affect people with them differently.
I was reminded of these when reading something by David Allen Green, someone whose stuff I follow religiously. Writing about the Greensill lobbying affair, he starts with the proposition that it’s right that everyone should be able to make their case to public power. Banning people from seeking to exercise influence causes serious problems. In principle.
His analogy is, I think, not an ideal one. He notes that in theory everyone “has the ‘right’ to dine at the Ritz”, but not everyone can afford it. Whereas in fact, so long as the Ritz doesn’t discriminate on the basis of a protected characteristic, it doesn’t have to sell its services to anyone it doesn’t want to.
Government is different. It has to serve everyone. Which is one reason why CEOs don’t necessarily make good political leaders: there’s always the risk that they’ll write off a chunk of the citizenry in the same way as firing a slice of the workforce, or moving upmarket and leaving former customers behind.
But David’s underlying point is a sound one. Even if his initial proposition is right, the fact is that money and power make a massive difference. They make some voices much louder, and act – deliberately or carelessly – to silence many others. So the very least we should expect is to know exactly who is saying what to whom, and with how much money behind them. Absolutely. No exceptions.
Openness isn’t the only or final answer, of course. It’s not sufficient. It doesn’t solve for the problem identified in another of France’s observations (and uncomfortably evident today): Si 50 millions de personnes disent une bêtise, c’est quand même une bêtise. (Rough translation: Idiocy voiced by 50 million people is still idiocy.)
But it is necessary.
As David puts it:
And if such absolute openness and transparency and procedural certainty is not feasible, then they should not be able to directly approach ministers and officials at all – even if it is in respect of their personal interest (as opposed to on behalf of a paying client, which is a gap Cameron was able to exploit).
They can write a letter to a member of parliament, or wave a placard on Whitehall, like anyone else.
Update: On Monday, I shared a superb piece of writing by Zeynep Tufecki, dealing with Covid theatre. She was particularly scathing about the cult of the wipedown: the opportunity cost we pay for the amount of time, money and energy spent on cleaning and disinfecting, when these have long been known to be a very minor element in the overall risk.
As John Naughton points out, US officialdom has now caught up. The CDC, now creeping back to its role as a central and strong player in the fight against the pandemic after its near-crippling by Trump, confirms formally what Zeynep was saying (and she, as she freely notes, is only reporting what others have proved long ago): that while transmission via surface contact is possible, the risk is low. Aerosol spread is far more dangerous and far more common.
To which some might answer: well, there’s still a risk. So we shouldn’t relax our guard vis-a-vis cleaning stuff.
Well, up to a point. But the real point is the one I discussed on Monday. If everything’s a priority, nothing is. So we need to prioritise wisely. When you focus on the wrong risk, you fail to protect against the right one. Sure, clean stuff. But if keeping up with that in any way eats into resources you need to spend in proofing against bigger risks, then think carefully about rebalancing.
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