What I'm reading

The Wealth of Man by Peter Jay. Among other claims to fame, Jay was one of the writers of Yes, Minister and this book has both the strengths and weaknesses of the series.** In essence, it’s a public choice view of the world. This is conducive to telling a convincing story, as long as you don’t worry too much about what’s being left out. In Jay’s story, private initiative is the key to progress and governments are at there best when they keep in the background setting the rules, and defending producers against internal and external predators.

To tell the story this way, you have to leave out some pretty important chapters, or, as in Jay’s case, report them and disregard. While reading about the Mesopotamian civilisations based on gigantic irrigation systems and the Roman road system that enabled rapid communication from Scotland to Syria, I was waiting for some sort of discussion of public goods, but this is not a category for Jay.

In fact, it would be quite plausible, though a drastic oversimplification, to tell a story in which the main engine of progress is the appropriate choice of public goods. Military grandeur, monarchical display and religious edifices like pyramids and cathedrals soak up capital, while schools and transport infrastructure generate high returns. In 18th century England, even the allocation to religion was turned to good account with clergymen like Priestley and Stone discovering oxygen and aspirin instead of writing devotional tracts.

I also read and very much enjoyed Isabel Allende’s memoir of Chile My Invented Country.

**A totally erroneous claim. As James Wright Russell points out, it was Antony Jay. What’s annoying here is that I had doubts about my recollection on this, and relied on Google, which produced this link, referring to “co-writers Jonathan Lynn and Peter Jayâs 1980-1982 series Yes Minister, said to be the favourite series of then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. ” What’s really annoying is that I have a DVD of the series, so I could easily have done a more reliable check.

7 thoughts on “What I'm reading

  1. John,

    I’m assuming there’s some principle of ethical blogging which is stopping you from correcting the original blog entry.

    It seems to me that it would be OK to change ‘Peter’ to ‘Antony’ and then flag that you’d done this in the comments (giving due credit to James of course).

    Are my standards lax?

  2. The two Jays have long been confused. Peter Jay is “Sunny” Jim Callaghan’s son in law, and a former Brisitsh Ambassador to Washington, and so an unlikely writer of a television comedy series, even one about politics.

  3. Don, I often do things the way you suggest.

    My rationale this time is more the kind of aesthetic that put the plumbing on the outside of 1980s buildings – the readers get to see the gory details of how I make my mistakes.

  4. Your point about appropriate choice of public goods is a good one. If, like me, you like to dream up ‘what ifs’ of history, imagine if one of the Pharaohs had chosen a large canal instead of a pyramid for his monument …

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