Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Allure of the Oblique
I bought and read this book because of one word, which happened to be its title.
I was fascinated by the word “obliquity”. I wasn’t familiar with it. I didn’t even know whether it was a neologism created by the author, John Kay, a Professor of Economics and regular columnist for the Financial Times.
As it turns out, the word has been around since the fifteenth century. Naturally, it derives from the word “oblique", which means "slanting, sidelong, indirect".
As a noun, it is the quality or state of deviation or deviating from a line or direction.
Kay uses it to describe the process of achieving a goal indirectly rather than directly.
In Off the Black
Kay credits Nobel Prize Winner, Sir James Black, with the principle of obliquity, which asserts that “goals are often best achieved without intending them”.
This statement is pretty equivocal. It doesn’t purport to suggest that goals are always best achieved without intending them.
To the extent that a goal is an objective or something you intend to achieve, it doesn’t make sense to say that you can best achieve it without intending to.
It would cease to be a goal, if you no longer intended to achieve it by any means.
Black’s statement therefore can mean no more than that, sometimes, you can achieve a goal as an unintended or accidental outcome of trying to do or achieve something else, perhaps even another goal.
I could have lived with the implications of this statement, but I suppose my reaction would have been “So what? What else can you tell me?”
Perhaps anticipating my skepticism, Kay takes Black’s principle and builds a whole new worldview on its foundation: “our goals are best achieved indirectly.”
Gone is the word “often”, absent is any reference to the lack of “intention”.
Instead, we now have a principle that states, effectively, that if you intend to achieve a goal, you should endeavour to achieve it indirectly, not directly.
Intention is still part of the methodology, only we have to strive to achieve our goal by a different route or path, indirectly rather than directly, perhaps by the road less travelled.
He promotes this as a new guide to personal problem-solving and economic and political decision-making.
Still, my skepticism was starting to grow, not retreat.
I dearly wanted Kay to prove his case, I wanted him to persuade me, I wanted to be convinced.
Yet, I can’t say that he succeeded. Ultimately, I feel that he did too little with his material. He didn’t live up to its potential. He overpromised and underdelivered.
I am still fascinated by the word "obliquity", but for me, at least, the case for obliquity remains to be proved.
Equally importantly, I felt that there were some dangerous overtones in his political philosophy.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Kay cites John Stuart Mill approvingly in Chapter 1:
”I never wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy…who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness…aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
There’s nothing in this statement that I disagree with.
However, I don’t accept that it was intended as an argument for the indirect path in all activities.
In Mill’s eyes, happiness remained the ultimate end. However, he concluded that it was an outcome of the pursuit of some other goal, rather than an outcome of the direct pursuit of happiness.
Perhaps happiness is so abstract and its causes so diverse, subjective and personal that we cannot say that there is any one method of achieving it directly for all people.
However, can the same be said with respect to a recipe for baking a cake, or a decision about the best location for a new highway between two cities, or a method by which a judge arrives at justice in a dispute?
The Pursuit of Profit
Kay also cites George Merck:
”We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.”
While profit is less abstract and more quantifiable than happiness, it is still an example of a goal that, while it might be the ultimate end of economic activity in capitalist society, it is still best achieved as an outcome of the pursuit of some other goal (e.g., meeting the needs of the public).
You do not achieve profit and wealth by being passionate about profit and money, you achieve it by being passionate about something else.
The Science of Muddling Through
Kay borrows the distinction between direct and oblique approaches to decision-making from Charles Lindblom:
”The root, rational, comprehensive method was direct and involved a single comprehensive evaluation of all options in the light of defined objectives.
“The oblique approach was characterized by what he called successive limited comparison…a process of ‘initially building out from the current situation, step-by-step and by small degrees’.”
Kay cautions against thinking that the oblique approach is unstructured and intuitive. It is actually a disciplined and ordered process. It involves constant improvisation, pragmatism and never-ending learning.
The distinction between means and ends is important to simple problem-solving, but less central to “practical decision-making”. (He doesn’t explain the distinction any better than this.)
Objectives, Goals and Actions
Kay uses the traditional distinction between objectives, goals and actions.
Objectives are fluid and imprecise, which impacts on the goals and actions required to achieve them:
”High-level objectives – living a fulfilling life, creating a successful business, producing a distinguished work of art, glorifying God – are almost always too imprecise for us to have any clear idea how to achieve them. That doesn’t imply that these goals lack meaning or the capacity for realization. We understand their meaning and realise them by translating them into intermediate goals and actions; we interpret and reinterpret them as we gain knowledge about the environment in which we operate. That is why successful approaches are oblique rather than direct.”
Kay uses Isaiah Berlin’s definition of “pluralism”, in essence, “the notion that there is more than one answer to a question”, in contrast to “monism”, “the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truth into which everything, if it is genuine, must fit.”
Ironically, our objectives are subjective, and therefore fluid and open to change.
As a result, our goals and actions must also be flexible.
We must embrace negotiation, adaptation and compromise.
Different people will solve the same problems in different ways at different times.
Complexity and Incomplete Knowledge
Kay recognizes that the world has become so complex that we can never have complete information about any particular problem or situation.
To the extent that we make assumptions and simplify the world in order to fit it into patterns and models, we have to accept that our models and perceptions might be wrong.
There is no point in becoming despondent about the risk of error. We move step by step toward better decisions and greater knowledge by way of a process of trial and error. No error, no progress.
The Road to Serfdom
By this point in the book, I was starting to feel frustrated that there was no real explanation of the mechanics of oblique decision-making and how it might interface with direct decision-making.
Besides, I was starting to get uncomfortable with the implicit politics of what is effectively a management theory.
In the same section that Kay cites John Stuart Mill, he quotes Adam Smith:
”By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
Later, he quotes Friedrich von Hayek:
”Nobody has yet succeeded in deliberately arranging all the activities that go on in a complex society.”
At the heart of “Obliquity” (the book) is a war with modernism, as represented by the architect Le Corbusier and the Communist Vladimir Lenin.
Its purpose is to establish that the world is too complex to be designed or commanded from above.
No grand design should be allowed to prevail. No politician or executive should be allowed to dominate.
Instead, what emerges from the apparent chaos of human interaction and pragmatism, like the capitalist economy, led by an invisible hand, is right. Or, at least, on the way to being right over a period of time. Only, don’t interfere with the process, let it come about indirectly.
There is something fundamentally conservative, non-interventionist and anti-progressive about this approach.
Obliquity could very well be an adjunct or handmaiden to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.
Ironically, Kay embraces the language of pluralism, complexity and chaos theory.
These concepts seem to be at odds with traditional conservatism. They imply relativism in values.
I might be doing Kay an injustice. However, in my eyes, the adherence to pluralism comes across as tokenist.
There is an iniquity at work here. It made me feel deeply suspicious of obliquity, notwithstanding its superficial appeal.
Kay doesn't seem to mind that some of us might take the road less travelled (and get lost), as long as the majority takes the road most travelled.
There is a sense in which, left to our own obliquitous devices, stripped of intention and directness, ironically, we will end up conforming. Unintentionally. Indirectly.
Obliquity is just a new way to preserve the economic and social system that we've got. Intact. Exactly as it is.
There is an underlying confidence that, without interference or design or positive discrimination, nobody will be able to counter the invisible hand of conservatism.
Kay's version of obliquity is really about maintaining a straight line or direction.
It's about maintaining the standard, maintaining standards, the norm.
It isn't really about deviation at all, let alone deviance.
In its own right, it's actually quite devious.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Pluralism is tolerated only insofar as it doesn't alter the status quo and nobody rocks the boat.
So, ultimately, capitalism in its current form will be perpetuated by a (seven?) billion instances of pragmatic obliquity.
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