Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly

The flaws are the most interesting part of an economist's valuable thesis, says Omar Malik

July 8, 2010

Socrates was an uncompromising stirrer. He delighted in his chosen calling - the crushing of conventional wisdoms to provide a solid pathway to the truth. Hurrah for Socrates, an inspiration to us all. He should be the patron saint of management and of academe. Sadly, he is not. Hierarchies and advocates of the truth are natural enemies. Obliquity is the work of another gadfly, and it stings several deserving bottoms. John Kay should be careful what he drinks.

Kay is an economist of distinction; a Fellow of St John's College, Oxford and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. He is also a journalist. Happily, he writes like a journalist rather than an economist, and Obliquity is a very good read. Kay's central thesis is that goals are best achieved not by a direct planned approach, but by an indirect process of "adaptation and discovery".

Pace the publisher's puff, this is not "a brand new" idea, but a well-known concept. "Events, dear boy, events," as Harold Macmillan said. However, it takes a poor second place to the established norms of management: set out to rule world; adopt style of Genghis Khan; destroy all opposition; amass riches; retire; buy title; rebrand self as a philanthropist. (Citing no names, to avoid appearance before Mr Justice Eady.) The value of this book is less in the validation of its thesis than in its stinging of sacred cows.

Kay's biggest targets are the masters of the world - the narcissi extremi who think themselves able to comprehend the incomprehensible, and to predict the unknowable, and whose concept of happiness is their reflection in a mirror and a fat wallet. He omits to mention the golden parachute with which they escape the inevitable crash of their certainties. He castigates the supposed "serene and lucid" minds who know better than the common people, ie, you, me and everybody else. His examples range from the "crazed designs" of Le Corbusier to the single mindset of George Bush minor. They include state-controlled genocide (Pol Pot) and state-controlled economies (the USSR) - do not drink tea with the FSB/KGB, Professor Kay.

Reprehensibly, his targets do not include Tony Blair, whose hotline to God had no serene and lucid mind at either end. Kay makes an informed attack on the masters of the world in the economic sector - but not Gordon Brown. Why? Brown's rock-like belief in his intellectual infallibility brought avoidable economic disaster upon Great Britain. Still rock-like of intellect, he then claimed that we needed his valuable experience. Had he survived, the captain of the Titanic would not have made "experience of icebergs" the strong point of his CV.

We may surmise that Kay's advocacy of "adaptation and discovery" originates in his lifetime study of economics and in his realisation that, like the weather, it is a world beyond human control. In fact, it is worse: although meteorologists award themselves bonuses, they do not sell off the nation's umbrellas.

Kay comes close to saying that there is no science of economics. Most non-economists long ago reached that conclusion. Economics cannot possibly be a science if, as has recently occurred, one faction of eminent economists asserts that the country must immediately reduce its unaffordable expenditure, only for a second faction of eminents to assert exactly the opposite, that a reduction in expenditure will make matters worse. Economics may provide a good rear-view mirror, but for the road ahead, the only possible advice is to drive carefully. And most of us would think that common sense, not economics.

Paradoxically, the flaws in the book add to its interest. Kay stretches his definition of obliquity to include cunning, the indirect approach of military strategist Basil Liddell Hart, and lateral thinking. He is one-sided in choosing only supportive examples. There is no real discussion of the critical importance of context in decision-making, and unsupported statements are sprinkled throughout. Hence the paradox. These flaws secure the reader's careful attention to Kay's valuable thesis. Obliquity is nourishing food for thought. And that surely is the raison d'être of any book.

Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly

By John Kay
Profile Books, 224pp, £10.99
ISBN 9781846682889
Published 25 March 2010

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