Be careful – but not too careful

‘Be careful what you wish for…’ is a phrase that any campaigner finds often crops up. It is almost always uttered by someone diametrically opposed to whatever it is that you are seeking. Rarely (I won’t say never) does it come from cautious people on your own side of debate and that tells you something.

Examples I can recall in my experience include:

Be careful what you wish for, if you ban driven grouse shooting then a) enraged gamekeepers will spitefully kill even more raptors b) the hills will be covered with exotic conifer plantations c) there will be a loss of economic benefit

Be careful what you wish for, if you challenge the current general licence system then you will get something even worse in its place

Be careful what you wish for, if you limit the use of neonicotinoids then there might be some even worse pesticides that will be used more often

Be careful what you wish for, if you support windfarms in the right places you will get them in lots of bad places

…and there are plenty of other examples of course.

The ‘bcwywf’ argument is usually accompanied by gross exaggeration too – not quite of the ‘we’ll all die’ proportions but often just as silly. Yes, some people will lose economic benefit if driven grouse shooting is banned, but others will gain, so the economic question would be, what is the scale of the economic loss, or might it actually be a benefit overall when you take into account reduced peatland degradation, carbon loss, increased flood risk and increased water treatment cost, and what are the economic benefits of alternative land uses that suddenly come into play once grouse shooting is banished to history.

And I’m not saying that it’s only the people with whom I disagree that do this – everybody does it to some extent. ‘If you do this then we’ll all die’ is a very powerful argument when true – I’d take some notice of it – it’s just rarely true. The truth is usually ‘there are some good things and bad things about this course of action but I think the good things outweigh the bad things, pretty clearly and substantially, so we ought to do it’. Most real-world decisions involve weighing up the pros and cons of an action, and that is almost always the case with public policy decisions. And there are almost always winners and losers from any decision, and they are often the people from whom you will hear the most. But you will usually hear a lot more from those interests who might be big losers than from the public, particularly if the public consists of a large number of small potential winners.

Of course, when industry argues for a development, like a new rail line for example, they don’t say ‘Please do this Minister, because you will make us rich’, nor, in this country I hope, do they say ‘Please do this Minister, because that will make us rich and we will make you rich too’ although I wouldn’t, generally, rule it out. But no, they say ‘Please do this Minister because it’s cheap, quick, easy and incredibly popular with everyone, particularly the supporters in your party (and constituency) and it will create huge numbers of new jobs and drive the economy forward while making you the most respected and admired politician in the country, ever!’.

Of course we should weigh up the pros and cons of any action, but that has to be done very carefully. First, it’s quite difficult to know what all the consequences might be, and second it’s difficult to calculate their likelihood. It’s possible that someone is planning to bump me off because of my position on grouse shooting, but that seems unlikely so I won’t take any notice of that potential consequence (and, of course, any policy maker ought to take practically no regard of that, since it would weigh very unimportantly in the grand scheme of things (and itself would be a matter of costs and benefits)). There is some support for the idea that we act risk-aversively and overestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes – see here.

It’s difficult to weigh up all the consequences of any change because the world is a complex place (and some people want to make it seem even more complex and unknowable because they don’t want change). The phrase ‘unintended consequences’ is, in my experience, almost always used to suggest unintended bad consequences rather than to suggest there will be lots of great consequences that we cannot imagine as well as some bad ones too. Don’t you think?

My personality is fairly cautious, or maybe cautious is the wrong word. I am a risk-taker but only after I have assessed the risks. I make a regular small income through betting on sporting and other outcomes but I’m not a reckless gambler. For example, I have never bought a lottery ticket which seems the most reckless thing in the world to do, combining as it does an inefficient small donation to good causes and a tiny chance of making an overall personal profit. If I’m giving to charity I’ll hand my money over directly thank you, and if I am wagering on an event I’ll judge the odds before committing.

But I’d say I am quite cautious in life, and I was probably at my most cautious in new jobs when the decisions seemed ‘bigger’ than those to which I had become accustomed and more unpredictable because I was the new boy. In these circumstances it always helped to have wise people around one to talk to, and it also helped if there were views, both wise and foolish, covering a wide range of options to consider. But probably the thing that worked best was to force oneself to be a bit braver than one wanted to be, after thinking carefully, and see what happened. And if you do that you find that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but that it is really very rare that the worst downsides happen. The thing that you worried about because it would be so bad, was so unlikely to happen that it really hadn’t been worth worrying about, or it did happen, but not nearly as badly as one had feared. And usually, some unforeseen good things happened too.

So, when I was a manager, in the coaching I gave my staff (or advice handed out whether they wanted it or not) I would often encourage them to make themselves take a few more thought-through risks and see what happened. Don’t be reckless, but your job is to make decisions; keeping everything the same is poor decision-making.

I’d be happy if my gravestone said ‘Sensibly bold, and boldly sensible’. Yes, you should be careful what you wish for, and that means thinking it through, but you may have to be sensibly bold to get it.

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6 Replies to “Be careful – but not too careful”

  1. Totally agree with your philosophy Mark.
    It is important to think things through well before taking action and weighing up the consequences of actions, but being complacent and doing nothing leads nowhere and often makes matters worse. Courage not complacency is our need today, leadership not salesmanship. There are always risks in taking any action but in well thought out campaigns these will usually be small and can be dealt with as they arise.

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    1. But don’t forget the old mechanic’s trusty friend:'iiabdfi'. Pity David Cameron didn’t think of that before deciding to tinker with the Eurosceptic right of his party and allow a referendum.

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      1. Even 'tgiag'... (on the other side of the fence) is more by way of a warning that you are probably kidding yourself!

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