Plans that just won’t play ball

Image of Harry Eyres

A painful situation has arisen at my tennis club, normally a haven of peace broken only by the thwack of racquet hitting ball and occasionally the thud of racquet hitting Astroturf. The committee, as it was empowered to do, decided to hire a full-time tennis coach. Proudly announcing the new appointment, the result of a selection procedure that would not have disgraced a ministry or a bank, it unexpectedly ran into fierce resistance. Many members said they preferred the existing part-time coach, who also applied for the job.

We were not particularly impressed that the chosen man had a whole string of coaching qualifications and ticked more boxes relating to experience and skills. We value the existing coach because he is outstandingly good at his primary job – coaching both adults and children, of all levels – as well as being a charming and generous-spirited person. We didn’t necessarily want a “super-coach” combining the pedagogical abilities of Brad Gilbert with the entrepreneurial flair of Richard Branson. Our club, let it be whispered gently, is not the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Now the club is riven into factions: – those supporting the committee, which feels under-appreciated; and those upset by its high-handed behaviour, becoming more and more irate and firing off e-mails quoting George Orwell and comparing the committee to the KGB.

I am one of those supporting our much-loved part-time coach, but I feel some sympathy for the committee, which clearly believes that it has done its job in the best interests of the club, and cannot understand why some recalcitrant members fail to grasp this.

I have been puzzling over this impasse and have come up with a kind of explanation, or at least a way of placing it in a wider perspective. Our committee contains some very high-powered individuals, senior figures in the financial world and the civil service, and I think that may be part of the problem. High-powered people are naturally drawn to high-powered solutions.

A book I’ve been reading in slow fashion over the past year is James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State (1998), an analysis of what went wrong with a number of the 20th century’s authoritarian high modernist schemes, from the collectivisation of farms in the Soviet Union (sorry, committee, this is not another KGB comparison), to scientific forestry and the planned city movement.

All of these schemes were planned and carried out with the best of intentions, by highly intelligent and qualified professionals. They all proceeded according to certain ideas of rationality, functionality and order that turned out to flout more primordial principles of human and natural flourishing.

Planned cities such as Brasilia or Chandigarh, designed for ease of transport flow and pleasantness of living conditions, failed to be the utopias their creators imagined. Brasilia (the only one I know first-hand) had to be serviced by chaotic satellite shanty towns, full of the workers who could not afford to live in the capital. I even remember an ambassador’s wife, reclining by her swimming pool, complaining that Brasilia was socially moribund.

The fact is that people prefer living in mixed-up, unplanned cities. No more liveable and beautiful cities have ever been built than those of old Europe and the Middle East, where bakers and bankers, priests and actors, students and businessmen all rub shoulders. Rational design precluded the necessary randomness of the café, the pub and the street market: the whole walkable closeness of the old city.

The fate of scientific forestry was similar. Endless identical rows of the same species of tree might seem like a rational and orderly solution to the problem of timber supply, but nature does not work like that. Monocultures, far from being rational, are highly vulnerable and unstable, because it is only the immense complexity of natural biodiversity that guarantees reliable abundance and guards against epidemics. Yields from scientifically planned forests, which started out high, tended to fall away drastically; in the worst cases “forest death” occurred.

Scott’s book is a defence of what he calls metis (practical knowledge, based on experience and appreciation of complex interdependencies that can never be fully comprehended) against scientific and technological hubris. Metis understands the importance of relationships, the messy, warm, tangled relationships of which all life is composed.

Technological hubris, on the other hand, operates according to the principle of Procrustes; as Isaiah Berlin put it, “if the facts – that is, the behaviour of living human beings – are recalcitrant to [the] experiment, the experimenter becomes annoyed and tries to alter the facts to fit the theory.”

Scott sums up the reasons all the high modernist schemes failed as follows: their “progenitors ... regarded themselves as far smarter and more far-seeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were”. The thing that has really infuriated some of us at the club is the committee’s evident belief that it knows so much better than we do what is good for us. But I suppose this is one of the occupational diseases of the high-powered.

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