The Politics of “Ditch Decisions”

The role of the young army officer, like politicians, is to make expensive decisions, under pressure with inadequate information. Imagine you are walking down the road and you come under effective enemy fire. It doesn’t matter which ditch you jump into, but it’s generally better if you’re all on the same side of the road and know where the bullets are coming from. And that, in a nutshell is what command and control is. You do not stand in the road, getting shot at, arguing about which ditch is best, because the status quo, being shot at, is completely unacceptable, and almost anything is better.

There are many ‘ditch decisions’ in politics.

We need more runways in the south-east of England. Gatwick, Stanstead, Luton and Heathrow ring London, and have their champions, and to whom any decision that isn’t their chosen solution is “crazy”. Someone is going to have to make a decision, and any decision will piss most people off. Boris Island isn’t crazy. An extra runway at Heathrow isn’t crazy, nor is one at Gatwick, Luton or Stansted. Capacity needs to be built somewhere. Does anyone imagine in 50 years, that we would regret building Boris Island, having done so? No, there would be breathless documentaries about how “controversial” it was at the time, but praising the visionary architects and engineers that made it possible.

We have long needed new baseline power generation. Gas, Coal, Biomass and Nuclear all have their adherents, for whom any decision which isn’t invested in their chosen solution, is “crazy”. If no decision is made, then the lights go out. One of Labour’s criminal acts was to play chicken with the prospect of widespread power cuts, unwilling for reasons of electoral triangulation to make a decision about where and what to build.

We need more rail capacity in the UK. High Speed 2 may not be everyone’s favoured solution. I’ve long thought the money could be spent upgrading existing stock and lengthening platforms. But then I get told there’s a firm limit to train length set in stone and brick by some curved Victorian tunnels on the network, so lengthening platforms can only deliver so much extra capacity. I am no expert on Rail. The person who told me this was, and I was convinced, though I cannot remember the details. There is no real alternative to new lines. Again. A decision needs to be made, and whichever is chosen, a majority of people will be annoyed. UKIP, especially, have no need of tiresome “facts” and “information”. They just decided there’s votes in opposing HS2, and they would mouth the anger.

Mundane questions of waste disposal, recycling, power generation, landfill, road-building and maintenance all concentrated harms and distributed benefits and situating the infrastructure is never popular.

What matters is that a decision is made in a timely manner, having considered all the information, as much as possible. Somebody, somewhere is going to get kicked in the bollocks, as a rail line or motorway cuts through the view he paid a fortune for (another argument for a land-value-tax, but that’s a post for another day). One of the things poisoning politics, is an expectation that in a democracy, the Government, can please you in all things, all the time. It can’t because it’s weighing the need of Businessmen to get to New York against the rights of residents of West London – people whose interests in the matter of a new runway at Heathrow are fundamentally opposed. The tendency of people to see ‘each-way’ decisions as binary morality is a result, and a reinforcement of an unwillingness to give the decision-makers the benefit of the doubt, allied to a fundamental mistrust of their motives. The needs of the Businessman to get to New York might mean a concentrated benefit, and the costs distributed across the many. But the benefits of a stronger economy, and greater logistic and transport links are likewise distributed. If you can get to New York (or anywhere else you might like to go) cheaper, you’re richer. But anger is stoked by grievance mongers like the SNP and UKIP, who’re mostly not called upon to make these decisions.

People are ignorant as to how decisions are made. We fear that which we don’t understand. Worse than ignorance is motivated reasoning, which sees the government blamed for all the bad things, yet receiving no credit for positive outcomes and the general well being of the country. There is a robust decision-making process in the UK, one that is mostly uncorrupted, and seeks to weigh competing interests fairly. We are well-governed. We have a diverse and resilient economy. I think we’re governed bit too hyper-actively, but that is arguable, and we libertarians must accept most people do not yet agree with our vision of what the state is for. Politicians could do with speaking human, and accepting that zero-sum decisions need to be made, and someone is going to be worse off. The electorate for their part must have the maturity to realise there are no solutions, only trade-offs, and not vote for half-arsed nutcases like UKIP and the Greens, in a fit of ranty angst. The Government deserves the benefit of the doubt, most of the time, when they do finally decide which ditch to jump into.

5 replies
  1. Luke
    Luke says:

    Problem is in knowing when a "ditch decision" is called for, and when you need masterly inactivity (eg those "something must be done" outbreaks.)

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Not to reduce the scope of your post but rather to highlight a small point.

    I was returning to Australia, from the UK, after attending a funeral. Upon going through the first checkpoint, I set off every alarm. I was groped pretty thoroughly: (it was "build up" and a bit of foil containing the aspirin in my pocket that set everything off). That was the theory. My son was pissing himself laughing until we were both stopped about a minute later, and forced to go into the scanner. We asked if there was an alternative to being irradiated and we were told, yes, miss your flight and come back tomorrow. Economy flights are not flexible, and anyway, if you took that option you would be noticed and picked up the next day.

    Meantime, dozens of women(?), totally cloaked in black robes floated by, unchecked by the men in charge at Heathrow who were all of middle-eastern appearance. Clearly the fox is guarding the hen house.

    I will never again travel via Heathrow. I refuse to submit to a charade where the likely suspects are ushered through, and middle aged patsies like me are groped to death, x-rayed, and spoken to sternly by Muslim men.

  3. Charles
    Charles says:

    The simple answer, is to compensate people fully – even generously – where there are concentrated negative externalities.

    Then just get on and build the damn thing

  4. TimWaddington
    TimWaddington says:

    Huge infrastructure projects at great expense and inconvenience to many are always assumed to be essential as it's 'progress'. Whilst I'm sure that's true in many cases, I'm mindful of the huge bulldozing of buildings in the 60's and 70's, and their replacement with concrete monstrosities (many of which are already being torn down). The future isn't always as rosey as indicated in the beginning of your post. Was the Eurotunnel really much better than the hovercraft we used to have? At what cost? It's still cheaper and quicker to fly to Paris or Brussels than to get the Eurostar. When HS2 is built, and the costs inevitably spiral into the £80bn range, and it fails to achieve its objectives, all the decision makers will be retired and unaccountable. But we'll be left with a scar through the home counties, an £80bn hole in the economy and a white elephant.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Not keen on HS2, as it doesn't come into the category of value for money. Most of the time wasted in a train journey is spent on the platform, and going ever faster and faster reaches the point where you are saving a few minutes on a journey.

    No-one in their right mind takes a train with a family these days, as even with cheap tickets it is extortionately expensive, and I hate my tax being used to prop up something for which the economics are questionable. It's great if you are young and fit and can carry your baggage long distances.

    And remember that once you bought the ticket you may have to stand for the whole journey, especially if a connecting train was late, or they sold all the seats. Not much fun when one is elderly, arthritic and the rest.

    The money HS2 will cost could radically improve the whole network, provided that the Unions don't hold us to ransom and argue that the money is there for pay rises.


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