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The Aristocrats!

[cat picture]

I followed a link from Tyler Cowen to the book, “Inside Job: How Government Insiders Subvert the Public Interest,” by Mark Zupan (but not this Mark Zupan, I think). The link points to the book’s Amazon page, and here’s the very first blurb:

‘In the tradition of Parkinson’s Law, this fascinating and novel contribution to political theory examines in horrifying but eloquent detail just how vulnerable government is, not just to demand-side capture by special interests, but to supply-side take-over by insiders operating for their own benefit and at the expense of the public good.’ Vicount Matthew Ridley, Journalist, Member of the House of Lords and author of The Evolution of Everything

A viscount is a kind of lord, right? Ummm, I better check. From Wikipedia:

A viscount is the fourth rank in the British peerage system, standing below an earl and above a baron.

And here’s the full chart:

Who better than an actual Lord to lecture us on the “horrifying” aspects of “insiders operating for their own benefit and at the expense of the public good”?

I guess no emperors, kings, or dukes were available, so the publisher had to go with a mere 6th-generation aristocrat and member of the House of Lords to endorse the case that “government insiders have the motive, means, and opportunity to co-opt political power for their benefit and at the expense of national well-being.”

P.S. Just to clarify: it’s perfectly reasonable for a rich, powerful hereditary lord to decry the political power of insiders operating for their own benefit. But it seems a bit ridiculous for him to not even seem to recognize that he himself is a stunning example of the problem he’s talking about.


  1. jim says:

    Well, that sounds like the homeless advocacy NGO lobby here in Seattle. They’ve wormed their way into becoming “partners” with city. They’re dependent on homelessness for their survival. Not surprisingly, the problem is getting worse, not better. But thankfully a new city income tax has been proposed to give them the funds they need to tackle this problem. Snort. The more government you have, the more money will be spent on things not in the public interest. But wait! There’s more! The city recently passed by initiative a new tax to fund a new “parks district”. But the new chief of the new parks district has discovered parks have hard problems. So he’s spending this year studying whether or not to give some parks to private orgs to operate.

    Government wastes money. It all starts out good. But once the public isn’t watching every move, the rot sets in and grows like cancer.

  2. Simon says:

    [ ” ‘In the tradition of Parkinson’s Law, this fascinating and novel contribution to political theory examines … just how vulnerable government is…but to … take-over by insiders operating for their own benefit and at the expense of the public good. ” ]

    Hardly a new idea in political theory — German sociologist Robert Michels’ “Iron law of Oligarchy” identified this problem in year 1911.

    It states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies… run by key insiders for their own self-interest.

    Any large organization, Michels pointed out, is faced with problems of coordination that can be solved only by creating a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy, by design, is hierarchically organized to achieve efficiency—many decisions have to be made daily that cannot efficiently be made by large numbers of people. The effective functioning of an organization therefore requires the concentration of much power in the hands of a few. Those few, in turn—the oligarchy—will use all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power (Power Corrupts).

    Frequent replacement of an organization’s insider power-personnel is the only possible defense against the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”. Very large/complex, nominally democratic organizations (like the US Federal Government) are especially prone to oligarchy… a formal royal/aristocratic class is not required.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Brings to mind the old saying, “You can conquer China on horseback, but you can’t rule China on horseback.”

    • zbicyclist says:

      Nice comment, Simon.

      Perhaps this is why large corporations are continually reorganizing. Some departments are likely to stay the same — legal, for example. But others shift around. Marketing research might be a separate department, might report to marketing, might be split into consumer research and sales research. You consolidate to get economies of scale and provide cross-fertilization, then you split it up among divisions to get closer to your customers. Yin and yang.

      Each reorganization shakes things up, often by shaking headcount out. In the ordinary course of events, getting rid of an underperforming employee means going through HR paperwork steps, a PIP (a performance improvement program lasting several months), and getting a bunch of approvals. In a reorg, people just disappear without any process at all. Cruel but functional?

  3. Norman Carton says:

    Your inferiority complex is showing. Ridley is a substantial scholar, refer to Wikipedia. He is an elected member of the House of Lords, most hereditary Lords are not. The fact that he was born into an aristocratic family, in a country which still recognizes titles, should not inhibit his right to comment any more than if he had been born coloured or gay.

  4. oncodoc says:

    Your argument appears quite valid, but I need to check where Harvard PhDs rank on the chart before I accept them.

  5. Dzhaughn says:

    A bigger problem is the fact that the publisher couldn’t spell “viscount.”

  6. Lord of the Kings says:

    Sex sells, and pointless titles do the same. Not that there are titles and pointless titles, at the end of the day, all titles are pointless. If a book gets reviewed by Dr. X, rather than Mr/Ms/whatever X, the book will sell more copies. Now if the reviewer is a lord too, that will probably sell some extra copies on top. Sad world.

  7. Lord says:

    As I take it, while viscount is an inherited title, it is not itself an inheritable one, so maybe he is in a good position to know.

  8. Carlos Ungil says:

    > But it seems a bit ridiculous for him to not even seem to recognize that he himself is a stunning example of the problem he’s talking about.

    Is this comment based just on the blurb? Would a member of the House of the Commons, or the US Congress, be a much less stunning example of the problem?

    • Andrew says:


      The topic is “insiders operating for their own benefit and at the expense of the public good.” A congressmember is an insider too, but a lord is the ultimate insider, as he was born on the inside.

      • Carlos Ungil says:

        But are these ultimate insiders more likely to operate for their own benefit that the insiders who worked their way into the system? I really don’t know. Anyway, fifty words may be too small a sample to say how ridiculous it is that he doesn’t seem to recognize something.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        Rich, powerful lords might be among the ultimate insiders — but I doubt that all lords are rich and powerful these days. And one can argue that non-lords such as the Rockefellers, the Kennedies and the younger Bushes were “born on the inside” just as much as a British viscount (or even more so, especially if compared to viscounts who are not rich or powerful.)

      • Andrew says:

        Carlos, Martha:

        See this from Wikipedia:

        In 1994 Ridley became a boardmember of the UK bank Northern Rock after his father had been a boardmember for 30 years and chairman from 1987 to 1992. Ridley became chairman in 2004. In September 2007, Northern Rock became the first British bank since 1878 to suffer a run on its finances at the start of the Financial crisis of 2007–2010. The bank applied to the Bank of England for emergency liquidity funding at the beginning of the financial crisis of 2007–08 but failed and Northern Rock became nationalized.

        Sounds like the ultimate insider to me. The guy’s life is as full of connections as a character from a Jonathan Coe novel. If he wants to decry that insiders are manipulating the system for their own benefit, fine. But he’s a prime example so at the very least I think it would make sense for him to recognize this.

  9. “But it seems a bit ridiculous for him to not even seem to recognize that he himself is a stunning example of the problem he’s talking about.”

    You’re upset that a three-line blurb recommending a book doesn’t contain a full description of the blurb-writer’s background and biases?

  10. I just came here to give props for the inside-baseball title.

  11. Alan E. Dunne says:

    hereditary peerages are less an example of insiders using power for their own benefit that of their using it benefit a certain line among their possible lines of descendants

  12. A.G.McDowell says:

    When I grew up, the land lease for our house was a 999-year leasehold with the landlord the Premier Baroness of the United Kingdom. I think this means she had the right to process ahead of all of the other barons and baronesses on certain state occasions. To all intents and purposes, she was a farmer’s wife, and her husband a retired naval officer and (according to my father) a not especially successful farmer. My father could remember when some other aristocrat had one of the first motor cars, and annoyed him by expecting other people to walk to the side of the road to let their car pass – but he was born in 1922. The great houses of most of the aristocracy are now run by the National Trust, a charity, and opened for visitors as museums with well kept gardens, which I have enjoyed walking round on many occasions. The House of Lords is packed with failed politicians put out to grass. While there are still some hereditary members, their power was broken with Every now and again some party tries to clean this mess up and fails – not because of the remaining hereditary members, but because conflicting attempts by the different parties to gain political advantage from the reform end in gridlock.

    To the extent that Matthew Ridley has inherited power, this has been by inheriting the money to give him a very good education and the brains to make use of it, not by inheriting a title which for all practical purposes will be of little more use on its own than to impress Americans blinded by history and pageantry.

  13. Samedi says:

    If you are disagreeing with the arguments presented in the book or with arguments presented in support of the book’s thesis by Ridley then his peerage is irrelevant (textbook genetic fallacy). If you are criticizing Ridley’s character, for example, calling him a hypocrite then you haven’t shown that he is guilty of hypocrisy. Insinuation is not methodologically sound.

    I’m not sure what you were trying to achieve with this post.

    • Andrew says:


      No, I’m not disagreeing or agreeing with any arguments. I just thought it was funny that such an insider was writing about the “horrifying” aspects of “insiders operating for their own benefit and at the expense of the public good.”

      To say that someone said something ridiculous is not a criticism of his “character.” Jeez! We all say silly things from time to time. And it’s good that people are out there to point out the silliness.

  14. Steve Sailer says:

    The Blagdon Estate’s website says:

    The Families of Ridley and White

    Blagdon has been home to the same family since 1700. The first three generations of owners were all named Matthew White. The next nine generations of owners have all been named Matthew White Ridley. For more than 300 years Blagdon has been owned by somebody called Matthew.

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