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Two comedians on government trying to do good things

Last night, I was half listening, not watching, a repeat of the TV comedy quizz show “8 Out Of 10 Cats” on some late night digital channel like E4 or Pick TV or some such thing. And I heard a comedian called Jon Richardson having a go at Nick Clegg, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrat Party.

Richardson was sneering at the Lib Dem Conference of whatever year it was when this show first went out, because so many of the things said at it, said Richardson, were boring and banal and obvious.

As an example, Richardson cited a pronouncement proclaimed with great solemnity by Nick Clegg which went something like this:

“It is not enough for governments and politicians to stop bad things. We must do good things.”

Richardson’s complaint about this pronouncement was that it was banal and boring, but banal and boring because so obviously true.

But both Clegg and Richardson are wrong. The idea itself, as stated with such admirable clarity by Clegg, is anything but banal and boring. It is very, very bad. It is banal only in the sense that badness often is. And Richardson was wrong in objecting to it in the way that he did.

If governments and politicians the world over were to switch over to only stopping bad things and to abandon all attempts to do good things, the world would quickly – although admittedly only after a period of angry readjustment – become a massively better place.

Dominic Frisby, like Jon Richardson, is also a comedian, among other things. I especially like this rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas. And I could have imagined it, but I think I also heard Frisby’s voice last night doing a pre-sell in between programmes, for some future BBC programme involving Business Dragons. Frisby’s career as an entertainer and performer, in other words, is motoring along nicely.

But guess what. Politically, Dominic Frisby does not sail with the prevailing comedic wind.

I have been reading Frisby’s recently published book called Life After The State, which I learned about earlier this week when I attended a talk given by Frisby at the Institute of Economic Affairs. As I later discovered when I began reading his book, Frisby’s talk was pretty much a spoken version of the book’s Prologue , which you can read here.

The next chapter in Life After The State, immediately after that Prologue, tells the sad story of Glasgow’s decline from world super-city to basket case. Glasgow, Frisby makes clear, has been a continuous and epicentric maelstrom of government attempting to do good things, year after year, decade after decade, to try to reverse Glasgow’s decline from economic and industrial glory to drug-addled welfare-dependency. And Glasgow’s problems have just kept on getting worse and worse. “And”, because to everyone who has been paying proper attention to the last century and more of human history, this would not be a surprise. Much of of the rest of Britain has followed Glasgow’s lead, if that is the right word.

Says Frisby, in the concluding sentence of this chapter:

The best way for government to help people is not to.


29 comments to Two comedians on government trying to do good things

  • Perhaps Mr. Frisby could someday pay a visit to Detroit.

  • Frank S

    Davy Crockett might have had something to say on all of this: http://americandigest.org/mt-archives/american_studies/davy_crockett_and_one_wee.php

    “One day in the House of Representatives, a bill was taken up appropriating money for the benefit of a widow of a distinguished naval officer. Several beautiful speeches had been made in it’s support. The Speaker was just about to put the question when Crockett arose:

    ‘Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money. ‘

  • john in cheshire

    1. Since when did we start to take our lead from sodding comedians? The bbc is replete with them and collectively they don’t add up to a row of beans. The current obsession with comedy and comedians is something that should occupy the time of some psychiatrist for many years.
    2. Isn’t this one just repeating what Ronald Reagan said when he was in the White House; namely, “the worst nine words that are ever spoken are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help'”?

  • Runcie Balspune

    In a similar vein, Professor Richard Lindzen at Yeo’s climate inquisition, stated:

    “It is clear that there is no [climate] policy that is better than doing nothing.”

    It seems to be a running theme gaining more and more ground, because the proles have got themselves sorted out and we don’t need the government any more, in the case of climate we can look at America’s declining carbon contribution due to the shale gas revolution, a wholly technological innovation not instigated by government, and in America more correctly not hampered by government – a “good thing”.

    These days the only “good thing” that the government can do will be to partially abolish itself.

    I always recall Edward de Bono, he of lateral thinking fame, proposing that civil servants who work to make their own jobs redundant should continue to be paid a percentage of that salary whilst continuing onto the next useless role, it was a crazy idea at the time, but it almost seems wishful now.

  • Manniac

    Apparently Dominic is the son of Terance Frisby the playwright, who wrote a devastating account of the British Legal profession in Outrageous Fortune about his divorce.

  • RRS

    Say, after all Richardson is seeking comedy effect, so is quite fair to conflate his presentation with Clegg’s?


  • RRS

    Followers of Michael Huemer might enjoy his current paper In Praise of Passivity in Studia Humana.

    The conclusion of the abstract (and the paper):

    As a result, the best advice for political actors is very often to simply stop trying to solve social problems, since interventions not based on precise understanding are likely to do more harm than good.


    That is the url, but I can’t be sure it will link.

  • RRS

    If Studia Humana is gated and you want to read the PDF (17pp) post an Email here at Sammy’s and I will send it as an attachment.

  • at Sammy’s


  • We give Big Government enormous power to muck up people’s lives. It is eminently logical that people will go to great lengths to ensure that Big Government is mucking up somebody else’s life. Many then call this “corruption”, and argue that the solution is to give Big Government more power to muck up people’s lives.

    (If you want to use a word that rhymes with “muck”, be my guest.)

  • people will go to great lengths to ensure that Big Government is mucking up somebody else’s life

    Not true: they will go to great lengths to neutralize the effects of the government mucking up their lives. The fact that in the process they may muck up someone else’s is of little interest to them, which is quite understandable.

    But yes, corruption is certainly one of the many manifestations of this. Corruption is simply an attempt at normal human interaction under the abnormal circumstances of government intervention.

  • Paul Marks

    Good post and good comments.

  • Sam Duncan

    I bought Frisby’s book this afternoon. Although I’ve only read the first chapter so far, a couple of things struck me: first, I could buy it this afternoon; it was on (reasonably) prominent display at Waterstone’s, and who would have expected that for this kind of book a decade ago? And second, a decade ago I hadn’t heard of Frédéric Bastiat; now I’m reading a book by a (reasonably) prominent stand-up comedian which quotes him in the chapter headings.

    I think we might actually be getting somewhere.

    PS: William, Glasgow is very much the British – even European – Detroit. It hasn’t seen quite the spectacular speed of decline Detroit has, nor does it have quite the same spectacular decay – although some of the pictures I’ve seen of the Motor City certainly remind me of my childhood in the ’70s – but the story is very, very similar. I’m really glad Frisby has chosen the city as his example, because the classical liberal analysis of its problems simply doesn’t get a hearing in Scotland itself.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Sam.

    Glasgow has been in decline for 100 years (since 1914).

    As for Scottish political culture – it is indeed shockingly bad.

    England is hardly a place with a pro freedom culture (far from it) – but the political atmosphere in Scotland is much worse.

    It is one of the few things I find myself in agreement with the man-in-Kent about – although I would support Scots independence in the hope they might rediscover their own free market tradition (once so strong) rather than out of a hope that Scots starve to death (which appears to be his position).

    By the way – did you get that copy of Bastiat in a Waterstones in Glasgow?

    And is the comedian you mention (who quotes Bastiat) Scottish?

    If so I am going to have to eat my words about Scotland – as Bastiat books certainly would not be sold in a Waterstones in Kettering England, and I can think of no free market comedians in England.

    That is the nasty thing about facts – they make me change my opinions (an uncomfortable thing at my age).

  • Runcie Balspune

    although I would support Scots independence in the hope they might rediscover their own free market tradition

    Unlikely, considering who’ll probably end up in power, in fact it is more likely what’s left of Britain would rediscover free market traditions once they’re rid of a significant lump of proto-communists from its parliament.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Worth noting that Frisby himself thinks that an independent Scotland might do very well:


    The ideal scenario is that Scottish independence would stop Scottish bolsheviks wrecking England any more, and would deny them the chance to go on wrecking Scotland, by the Scots, because ruining (and blaming) England would no longer be part of the deal. Win win. We can dream.

  • Laird Minor

    Brian, when is the vote on Scottish independence?

  • Mr Ed

    Laird, mid September 2014.

    Let me put the question, counter-factually, this way. Looking at present day Scotland, assumng that it were politically independent and identical in form to today’s Scotland, would any sane and/or decent English voter agree to a Union with Scotland?

  • Sam Duncan

    No, to be fair, Paul, I didn’t. And that’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see this one (also a bloke wandering around with The Road to Serfdom in his hand while I was queuing to pay for it). Certainly, Frisby isn’t Scottish either. But again, that’s why I was so pleased to see him take Glasgow as his example: it would have been easy to point to, say, Liverpool or Coventry, but Scotland needs this kind of analysis more than other places, because it’s so rarely heard here. Even if it’s from an outsider, it’s still welcome.

    I’m sceptical of the argument that a “yes” vote would force the Scottish polity to “grow up” and become fiscally responsible. It’s a seductive idea, but if it held any water, how do we explain Greece? Or Argentina? Or Venezuela? They’re independent states. Venezuela has oil, too. And it had a charismatic nationalist leader. Not much sign of responsible government there.

    So I’ll vote “no”, mainly because the best outcome I can foresee for a “yes” vote – in the real world, starting from where we actually are, with the political and client classes that we actually have – is that it won’t make a blind bit of difference. The worst doesn’t bear thinking about (if they can’t blame the English – and they probably still will, citing some kind of chicanery over the separation negotiations – they’ll start blaming the capitalists, and then we’ll really be in trouble). I felt the same way about devolution – of which similar wonders were predicted – and I think I’ve been proved right. I defy anyone in Scotland (who isn’t a paid-up member of the media-political axis) to tell me that they’re any better off as a direct result of the Scotland Act.

    You see, we, the people, wouldn’t be any more independent than we are now; they – Holyrood – would. It’s their freedom we’re voting on, not ours. And why should we give them one iota more power when they’ve proven themselves to be incapable of wielding what they already have in a responsible manner? No. Never. I don’t care what could happen; I know what’s likely to happen, and it’s not for me.

  • Sam, is it because you think that they are likely to join the EU?

  • Paul Marks

    So Sam where was this pro freedom Waterstones bookshop?

    Runcie Balspune – how dare you write down my private thoughts (for all to see), that is a gross violation of my right-to-privacy (or whatever).


    The official slogan of the Scottish National Party is “independence in Europe” (I know it makes no sense to think that being a province of he Belgium Empire is “independence” – but their grasp of English may be a bit faulty).

  • Sam Duncan

    Hey, I never said it was actually pro-freedom. 🙂 They still have the same fancy displays of Leftist crap, like all the others. It’s the Sauchiehall Street branch, which was, when it opened, the biggest bookshop in Europe (not for long, since that was right at the start of the Big Bookshop Boom, but it’s still a decent-sized place). I’ve gone there in the past looking for, say, PJ O’Rourke’s latest, and come away empty-handed. In a shop that size, that can’t be accidental. So I was genuinely surprised to see Frisby’s book at all, and it wasn’t even hidden away behind a Chomsky: that’s my point. Small progress, but progress nonetheless, I think.

    Alisa: Well, yes, there’s that too. The nationalists desperately want to stay in the EU. They don’t want an independent state; indeed, they actually want to strengthen the political union with the UK (also France, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Poland…). So they’re lying to us. Reason enough to tell them to sod off, in my opinion.

    But they want that because they believe it’s their best chance of restoring the corporatism, the cozy, rotten, “post-war consensus”, they think the “English” Tory Party (rather than, you know… reality) is hell-bent on destroying. Put crudely, they’re pro-EU for exactly the same reason many of us are against it: the suffocating embrace of the regulatory state. That’s why I don’t buy the force-them-into-responsibility argument: they’re doing this precisely in order to retain their fantasy welfare-world. They want to be Portugal. This time it’ll be different.

    Now, certainly, if we were talking about a Scotland outside the EU – if that were on offer – it wouldn’t have that luxury (or the appearance of it, at any rate), and the argument might hold more weight. But they’d still try, you can count on it. And then… Argentina.

    Ultimately, at some point down the line, yes, they’d have to face reality. But so will the whole UK. So will we all. We don’t need all the extra shenanigans of separation negotiations, EU membership wrangling, and a dive even further into the looking-glass to get there. True, it might hasten the moment. But it might postpone it, as they proudly try to defy sense. As I say, my guess is that it wouldn’t make much difference either way. Their bloody-minded devotion to socialism would offset any increased pressure of fiscal reality, and they’d cancel each other out. Much in the way matter and antimatter do: catastrophically.

    I’d rather avoid that. With respect to our host, I’ve never been a libertarian revolutionary. What excercises my mind the most is how we can get there with the least amount of pain. Maybe things will have to get worse before they get better. They probably will. But I don’t think they need get that much worse. I don’t relish the idea of socioeconomic ECT. I’d rather stay in the UK, get that out of the EU, work to make it more free, and then see where Scotland ends up. I genuinely believe the pressure for separation from both sides of the border would ease dramatically.

    Dammit, this comment’s long enough already, but I’d just like to point out that the seperatists are in the minority. As of right now – maybe the polls will tighten, against all precedent – “Scotland” doesn’t want this. Hell, last time I checked, a significant minority of SNP voters were planning to vote “no”. It’s not inevitable. It’s not even likely.

  • a significant minority of SNP voters were planning to vote “no”

    How many of those do you figure will vote for Scotland joining the EU if separated, or for the UK joining with Scotland in it? I’m just wondering whether at least some of them see the UK as a lesser version of the EU or something like that…

  • Sam Duncan

    How many “no” voters would want EU membership should the referendum fail to go their way, as a sort of damage limitation, you mean? Good question, Alisa. I think that’s what the SNP’s been banking on since it adopted its current strategy about 25 years ago. They know that a truly independent Scottish state scares people.

    The Nats of my childhood and teenage years were almost isolationist: anti-EU, anti-NATO, anti-Commonwealth, and republican. It got them nowhere. To anyone who remembers them it’s astonishing to watch today’s party at pains to explain how little would change: they want to retain the Queen, the BBC, and the Pound, maybe even the Post Office, and both EU and NATO membership. Where their former model was pre-EU Ireland, and “Brit” was a four-letter word, the whole modern strategy seems to be based on the idea that we’d still be sort of Brit-ish, like the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands (neither of which, of course, is in the EU).

    But as to the question itself, to tell the truth I have no idea. I don’t think anyone does. The EU is the elephant in the nationalist drawing room. Don’t ask.

  • Paul Marks

    No Alisa – about the only people in Scotland who are anti E.U. are the far (really far) left.

    Hardcore Stalinist types – and, yes, they still exist in Scotland.

    It is little better in the Republic of Ireland.

    There are a few anti free market anti E.U. people in the Republic – but the only anti E.U. party is the IRA (which calls itself “Sein Fein” – “Ourselves Alone”) a Marxist “ex” terrorist outfit – which now specialises in various forms of criminal activity.

  • Paul Marks


    I have no problem with a bookshop selling leftist books – my problem comes if there are no books there that are worth buying (no alternative point of view to that of the left hive-mind on history, economics and politics).

    I have been in many bookshops where I have come to the conclusion “if they offered any political book here to me, FREE OF CHARGE, I would walk out empty handed”.

  • OK, I think I get the (rather gloomy) picture – thanks to both of you.

    Paul, how many people do actually buy books in these shops? How many download books in electronic form? And how many read non-fiction at all?