The unadaptiveness of officialism is another of its vices. Unlike private enterprise which quickly modifies its actions to meet emergencies; unlike the shopkeeper who promptly finds the wherewithal to satisfy a sudden demand; unlike the railway-company which doubles its trains to carry a special influx of passengers; the law-made instrumentality lumbers on under all varieties of circumstances through its ordained routine at its habitual rate … The late snowstorm, indeed, supplied a neat antithesis … Not being under a law-fixed tariff, the omnibuses put on extra horses and raised their fares. The cabs, on the contrary, being limited in their charges by an Act of Parliament which, with the usual shortsightedness, never contemplated such a contingency as this, declined to ply, deserted the stands and the stations, left luckless travellers to stumble home with their luggage as best they might, and so became useless at the very time of all others when they were most wanted!

—Herbert Spencer. Over-legislation, 1853.

Today the most striking example of this shortcoming is in the adoption of new technology. When government agencies buy a computer system, they have no way of knowing or understanding the subtleties. They get expert reports—but the experts would not be experts if they knew how to run a large enterprise. So government departments always get stuck with a lemon; a lemon so expensive it often boggles the mind. It pays hundreds of millions for customized database systems which a university student could build in a month using open source software.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove