The Hollow Men

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

I highly recommend The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction by Dominic Cummings. It is full of insights into the failings of bureaucracies, government by crisis and news cycle, and hollow leadership.

The essay is long, but the excerpts below give some of the flavor.

… Most of our politics is still conducted with the morality and the language of the simple primitive hunter-gatherer tribe: ‘which chief shall we shout for to solve our problems?’ Our ‘chimp politics’ has an evolutionary logic: our powerful evolved instinct to conform to a group view is a flip-side of our evolved in-group solidarity and hostility to out-groups (and keeping in with the chief could lead to many payoffs, while making enemies could lead to death, so going along with leaders’ plans was incentivised). This partly explains the persistent popularity of collectivist policies and why ‘groupthink’ is a recurring disaster. Such instincts, which evolved in relatively simple prehistoric environments involving relatively small numbers of known people and relatively simple problems (like a few dozen enemies a few miles away), cause disaster when the problem is something like ‘how to approach an astronomically complex system such as health provision for millions.’

… Often watching MPs one sees a group of people looking at their phones listening only for a chance to interrupt, dreaming of the stage and applause. They are often persuasive in meetings (with combinations of verbal ability, psychological cunning, and ‘chimp politics’) and can form gangs. Parliaments seem to select for such people despite the obvious dangers. This basic aspect inevitably repels a large fraction of entrepreneurs and scientists who are externally oriented – that is, focused on building things, not social networking and approval.

… It is the startups who, generally, make breakthroughs and solve hard problems – not bureaucrats – but it is the bureaucrats who dominate the upper echelons of large public companies, politics, and public service HR systems. Civil service bureaucracies at senior levels generally select for the worst aspects of chimp politics and against those skills seen in rare successful organisations (e.g the ability to simplify, focus, and admit errors). They recruit ‘people who won’t rock the boat’ but of course the world advances exactly because of the efforts of people who do ‘rock the boat’. They recruit a lot of lawyers, who are trained to focus on process rather than outcome, reinforcing one of the worst aspects of bureaucracies.

… Cameron is superficially suitable for the job in the way that ‘experts’ often judge such things – i.e. basic chimp politics skills, height, glibness etc, so we can ‘shove him out to give a statement on X’. That’s it. In a dysfunctional institutional structure, someone without the skills we need in a prime minister can easily get the job with a few breaks like that.

… Our leaders are like 19th Century Germans who had lost religion of whom Nietzsche said, ‘they merely register their existence in the world with a kind of dumb amazement’. They get up every day and react to the media without questioning why: sometimes they are lauded, usually they are trashed, but they carry on in a state of ‘dumb amazement’ without realising how absurd their situation is. Meanwhile, the institutions within which they operate continue with their own momentum and dynamics, and they pretend to themselves that they are, in the phrase they love, ‘running the country’.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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