The invisible hand has finally vanished

Yesterday evening I took part in a wide-ranging discussion in London that included a number of senior civil servants. Although I need to respect the anonymity of the participants, I do have permission to mention one fairly abstract point that caught my interest.

A view was expressed that rising complexity in an instantaneously interconnected and interdependent world has reached the point where governments can no longer exert control. Now, without debating the point about whether governments were ever really in control, I would agree that the complexity of what they deal with is certainly increasing.

However, for the last couple of decades or so, governments have had a meta-narrative that absolved them from any need for overall control. This story asserted that the invisible hand of the market would automatically organize all the complexity of the world. Unfortunately this belief is one of the casualties of the financial crisis, along with the efficient market hypothesis. Not only did the markets not manage complexity, they actively created disorder.

There is now a narrative vacuum: no new big story to explain where control will come from next. Trust in government is waning and this can only make things worse. None of the major political parties, in the UK at least, has anything to offer on this front, so if credible control is important to our sense of government competence, we have a problem. As it says in Proverbs, without a big story the people perish.