Almost everyone thinks it is extremists who are utopians whilst centrists and defenders of the existing order are hard-headed and realistic.
This is a myth. And it is exposed as such by this report from the Committee of the Better Government Initiative, which combines idle utopianism with ignorance of economics.
The report starts from the perspective that:
The combined output of the Executive and Parliament contains too many disappointments and failures; policies that are not practicable or do not achieve their aims, legislation that is not operationally necessary, and projects...that go...wrong.
It gives 50 recommendations for improving on this. I've got five beefs with it:
1. An ignorance of incentives. The report calls for parliament to scrutinize government better, for whips to be less powerful, for laws to be "operationally (as opposed to presentationally) necessary, and for "pressures from the media [to] be handled consistently in a way that avoids responses...before the government is ready."
What this ignores is that governments have no incentive to follow these calls. The pay-offs to ministers are such that they prefer to kow-tow to the junk press, showboat with legislation and keep parliament weak.
2. A blind faith in competence:
Appropriate training, in particular in the operation of large organizations, should be provided for serving or potential ministers.
But knowledge of how successful large organizations work is not necessarily transferable to government. At least two men who had successful business careers - John Davies in the Heath government and John Moore in the Thatcher one - proved to be poor ministers. The notion that individual skill can transform a huge organization for the better is a glaring example of the fundamental attribution error. As Warren Buffett said, organizations matter more than individuals:
When a management team with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.
3. An ignorance of diseconomies of scale. Could it be that large government organizations perform poorly not because individual ministers lack training, but simply because they are too big? The report doesn't even pose the thought.
4. What is the optimal boundary between the market and the state? Aside from two proposals - continue looking to outsource and allow local authorities to charge for more services - the report never considers this question, betraying an ignorance the transactions cost economics (pdf) inspired by Ronald Coase. And yet a comparison of the relative costs of conducting transactions in-house or through the market is the cornerstone of determining an organization's proper size.
5. Having decided that something should be done in-house, what organizational form should we use? What are the relative merits of hierarchy versus flatter management structures? Could it be that some government failure is in fact the result of inappropriate use of hierarchy? Again, the report doesn't bother asking the question.
In this sense, the report is both utopian - in its belief ministers will act against their incentives and in the belief that "training" will improve government - and economically ill-informed, in that it fails to consider economists' approach to organizational size and structure.