They meant well


“They meant well” by D R Myddelton, published by the IEA, is a tour-de-force of government project disasters. It analyses in detail:

  • The R101 Airship
  • The groundnut scheme
  • Nuclear power
  • Concorde
  • The Channel Tunnel
  • The Millenium Dome

One would have hoped it was redundant to point out that these massive programmes needed to be managed actively, but the author finds it necessary to indicate the three essentials for managing projects in progress:

  • Regular reviews, focusing on the latest estimates of the amount and timing of future cash flows,
  • Up-to-date market research,
  • An ‘exit champion’ to argue the case for abandonment.

From the conclusion:

If everyone ‘meant well’, who was to blame: politicians, civil servants, scientists, engineers or managers? No, I think what was mainly to blame was the post-second-world-war collectivist zeitgeist — the visceral distrust of markets, partly based on ignorance, which I call ‘agoraphobia’.

… An important lesson from these projects is that governments do not understand product markets where customers are free to choose…

…My own ‘solution’ is simply: let the market work. To proceed with more large government quasi-commercial projects would be a recipe for further expensive disasters. Governments that lose thousands of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money should not easily be excused on the grounds that ‘they meant well’. Those of us who advocate laissez-faire (which I define simply as ‘government non-interference’) mean well too.

Despite my aerospace engineer’s emotional attachment to Concorde, I thoroughly recommend the book.

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