Process or outcome?

Professor John Kay

Having finished reviewing the notes of a talk on the Lisbon treaty I gave at a Civitas conference last month, I turned to the Financial Times and an article by John Kay on box-ticking and its impact on decision-making. (Read the article here.)

John Kay’s argument is that obsession with following the correct procedure can detract from taking the right decision. Indeed, he goes further and suggests that in a lot of cases the procedure does not even matter:

“Most people who complain about the process of decision are not really complaining about the process; they are complaining that its result is one they dislike. That means no amount of effort to make the process fairer can ever satisfy them.”

There is something in this, isn’t there? Think of all the criticism of what Edward Heath said at the time of the referendum in 1975, regarding the implications of EU membership for national sovereignty, when he actually said things like:

“Of course a country, like an individual, can decide to go it alone. And in theory at least, they may appear to have more freedom. But freedom to do what? Free to buy what you want but too poor to afford it. Free to say whatever you like – but too weak for anyone to listen.”

(Read the whole quote here.)

Is not the real reason for the criticism by anti-Europeans of Edward Heath in the referendum that he was on the winning side?

But, on the other side of the argument, let’s think about the criticisms we make of the eurosceptic press. Are these not to some extent an expression of the same phenomenon? We object to inaccuracies when they cast Europe in a worse light than we would prefer. I hope that we are equally critical of mistakes in the opposite direction, although there don’t seem to be very many of them.

But above all, there is the basic premise of federalism, that the system of decision-making matters. Federalists are indeed interested in process and not just outcome. But this is when the processes followed completely preclude the desirable outcomes, rather than merely having failed to reach them on any particular occasion.

For example, when is a failure in the regulation of the financial sector due to a failing in the regulatory system rather than a failing by an individual regulator? This is something that is at present being argued over in the financial comments pages, including by John Kay in the Financial Times. The answer will vary from one case to the next.

We federalists should not be deterred from looking at the system in which people work as well as the work that they do. But we should not imagine that changing the system will change all the work as well. Federalism is necessary but not sufficient.

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