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The menace of “delivering outcomes”

This posting now is rather non-topical, in that the clutch of words it refers back to was emitted three weeks ago in a news story about how our Prime Minister is going to stop us all getting so fat. I paid attention to this anti-fat initiative because I was interviewed on the radio about it, and one particular little phrase associated with this story has since stuck in my mind. I still have some print-outs of the relevant media coverage. Here’s how the Observer reported it:

In a letter to Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, a copy of which has been leaked to The Observer, Blair spells out what he sees as the Government’s failure to promote exercise: ‘Government policy has not delivered the outcomes we want in this area,’ he writes. ‘We have started to make progress on the school sport agenda, but also need to more effectively tackle activity levels in the adult population.’

Referring to the Government’s long-term target of getting 70 per cent of people physically active by 2020, the letter, written in July, states: ‘We need an ambitious delivery strategy, using the Olympic bid as a catalyst, to develop more innovative and interventionist policies across the public, private and voluntary sectors in both health and sport if that target is to be achieved.’

Setting aside the nightmare vision of the Olympic Games being held in Britain and coinciding with a government propaganda barrage tell us all to do physical jerks, the phrase that interested me here was Tony Blair’s reference to the government not having “delivered the outcomes” that he wanted. This phrase – “delivering outcomes” – sums up everything I don’t like and don’t admire about this government, and it says, in two words, why, despite all the inevitable drawbacks and disappointments it would bring with it, I would prefer a Conservative government instead.

Everyone who writes for this blog and the majority of those who read it wants “limited government”, and the way to have limited government is for it to be confined to a core curriculum of rule enforcement – like: don’t murder, don’t attack people, don’t rob, don’t riot, don’t swindle people – but otherwise, as Americans would say, to butt out. Provided we do not sink below a few extremely low standards of behaviour, what else we do with our lives is – or should be – of no concern to the government. Government is not there to promote all the virtues. It is not there even to restrain or punish all vices. It is there to restrain and punish a very restricted set of vices, of the kind that cause direct and unjustified hurt to others, of the sort which if unpunished and unrestrained would mean people regularly coming to blows with each other. As individuals, government ministers may regret the fact that so many of us fail to display as much in the way of virtue as they might individually like, but so long as we do not do too much, too obviously, of the vice variety, they will not, in their official capacity, bother us.

If symphony orchestras play vilely out of tune, if football supporters shout vulgar and yobbish things at their team’s opponents, if architecture is ugly, if the Internet is disgusting, if young people these days are appalling, if people generally are too snobbish, ill-mannered, ungenerous, ugly, graceless, self-centred, nasty – well, that’s all very regrettable. But these are not, or should not be, governmental matters, provided none of this results in actual murders, assaults and pillages and fights.

In particular, if the outcome of what shape we all turn out to be is that we turn out in many, many individual cases to be what our doctors regard as obese – again, this should not be government business. This should be for obese people to worry about, when people tease them, or refuse to marry them, or decline to pick them for sports teams, or to give them starring roles in movies.

But in Tony Blair’s mind it would seem that obesity is a government issue. Not only does he, as an individual, think that many of us are too fat. He wants the government to make us thinner. He thinks that making us thinner is part of his job. He thinks that thinness is an “outcome” which it is his duty to “deliver”.

On its own, such a belief, unrestrained by any other beliefs, would make Tony Blair into a straightforwardly evil tyrant. But to give him credit, he believes in other things also. In particular, he believes that there has to be some freedom, at least in the economic sphere, or there’d be no national wealth to tax, and he believes in himself and his government continuing to win elections. He can’t do that if he simply orders us all to do exercises every day. If people start being seriously bullied in a way that they are able to trace directly to Mr Blair this won’t turn them from fat Labour voters into thin Labour voters; rather will it turn them from fat Labour voters into fat Conservative voters. Blair won’t push it that hard.

So the “outcome”, to use Blair’s word, of this anti-fatness campaign isn’t going to be any less in the way of mass fatness. The only people who will be got at all seriously will be the particular professionals, such as teachers and doctors, who find themselves instructed to make people thinner, by doing … well by doing all the things that such people do anyway, like urging heart problem sufferers to cut down on fatty foods and take some exercise, and by organising games for children to play in. The main difference will be that they will now have to fill in lots of forms about it all, and send them off to London. All of which will cost money and interrupt all their other duties, so the “outcome” will be an increase in public spending and a decline in the efficiency of public services, in the form of a diminished willingness to do the job of supplying such services, to no good effect.

But Mr Blair’s belief, and similar beliefs on the part of thousands of other people who are now powerful (in the sense that their mistakes cost the taxpayer money and are seriously annoying to people), that it is Mr Blair’s duty to shape not just rules but outcomes has a profound effect on the texture of British public life, and of the kind of “outcomes” we actually end up being surrounded by. If fatness is the government’s business, and good manners among young people (that’s been a government concern for some time), and educatedness (which famously has been an obsession from day one of this government’s existence) – if goodness of all kinds, rather than badness only of very extreme and particular kinds is a constant government concern – then the result is not government that is lean and efficient and authoritative, but government that combines expense, intrusiveness and ineffectualness.

People aren’t going to get any less obese and useless as a result of Mr Blair’s latest thoughts on obesity. The government is going to get more obese and more useless.

9 comments to The menace of “delivering outcomes”

  • fnyser

    20. In order to make it possible for every capable and industrious German to obtain higher education, and thus the opportunity to reach into positions of leadership, the State must assume the responsibility of organizing thoroughly the entire cultural system of the people. The curricula of all educational establishments shall be adapted to practical life. The conception of the State Idea (science of citizenship) must be taught in the schools from the very beginning. We demand that specially talented children of poor parents, whatever their station or occupation, be educated at the expense of the State.

    21. The State has the duty to help raise the standard of national health by providing maternity welfare centers, by prohibiting juvenile labor, by increasing physical fitness through the introduction of compulsory games and gymnastics, and by the greatest possible encouragement of associations concerned with the physical education of the young.

  • David

    But since the government has already taken the role of providing health care in Britain, they can easily justify trying to promote exercise to reduce obesity to help lessen the burden..

    The road was already paved.

  • triticale

    Unless of course your choice of physical activity is riding to hounds, in which case you are at liberty to become obese…

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Sorry, the media coverage was in the Observer, not the Guardian as first stated. (They share the same website and their stuff all looks the same.) I’ve corrected it in the original.

    fnyser: I think the Nazi parallels can be overdone. Yes these people have Nazi-like wishes, but they have extremely un-Nazi hesitations about enforcing what they want, if persuasion doesn’t work. And even if they didn’t, the electoral consequences of getting seriously Nazi about stuff like this would be severe.

    If order to get full-blown national socialism a lot more things have to go wrong than are going wrong in Britain now.

    Obesity is weakness, and I say the state is getting obese, rather than strong. I’m not saying at all that the British state is turning into a Sumo wrestler.

  • The proper response is to say that Blair can institute whatever “fitness” measures he deems fit, provided that the measures are first “tested” by all MPs on his side of the House, for a period of two years.

    Some of those ex-trade union types look as they’re about ten trips to the buffet bar ahead of everyone else.

  • Guy Herbert

    Could this leak be less to do with promoting fitness to the public than providing a justification for the faltering Olympic bid as a part of health policy? If it is “health” and especially “for the children” rather than just swank for New Britain, then wasting a collossal amount of money and massively inconveniencing the public can’t be questioned. Cf the post hoc attempt to claim the millennium tent as educational for the kids.

  • Unfortunately, we Americans don’t say “Butt Out” often enough, either. Our citizenry is practically inured to being subjected to Great Social Experiments from the left and Great Moral Experiments from the right. Combine this with an administration that is doing its damnedest to dismantle what’s left of that wheezing old saw, the US Constitution, and well… The phrase “Where’s the outrage?” comes repeatedly to mind.

  • R. Adams

    I’m reminded of the scene in the book “1984” where Winston Smith is performing state-ordered calisthenics in front of the telescreen. Could be a “job creation” effort also — you’d need lots of people to monitor everyone effectively.

  • toolkien

    To pull a few threads together, the insidious part of it all isn’t that the ‘get thin’ outcome delivery will ever succeed, just as the delivery of health services to all as needed has ever succeeded, but it is the endless penetration of government in to our lives, slowly, and seemingly logically to most (when the founding premises are left blurred – e.g. government attempts at thinning the herd to save health transfers is logical instead of asking why are the transfers for health made in the first place). To my mind it is worse than national socialism because it so slowly and quietly does away with liberty and rights that people hardly notice. At least with a fascistic approach the cards were laid out on the table and every one knew what game was being played.

    The upper middle class of the US is bled of ~50% of their income in taxes (direct government control), and regulatory boundaries (and its ~10-15% additional control, direct and indirect) and hardly a howl of protest. It is the sum total of conditioning from socialized education, taxation and regulation, and stultifying handouts and transfers, and the endless self-promotion of the bureaucrats and politicians to the Good they have done. As an aside it is humorous when the bureaucracy in mid fiscal cycle trumpets how much Good they have manufactured and we would all be lost without them, then, when the next budget is set, there is so much to do and little headway has been made. All the while the latent fears of the electorate are played upon during both periods.