A Comedy of Bureaucratic Errors : Slow Horses is a spy thriller worthy of Gordon Tullock. (g. patrick lynch, 3/15/24, Law & Liberty)

Until the 1960s, scholars modeled individuals in the public sector as public-spirited in their motivations and work. One of the founding fathers of public choice, the irascible Gordon Tullock worked in the US foreign service in China after completing law school. That experience, and his general skepticism about—well—everything, prompted him to turn his attention to the administrative state. Tullock and his Nobel prize-winning co-author James Buchanan built a model of politics that posited politicians and bureaucrats as self-interested rather than public-spirited and rational rather than angelic. They also included the idea that politics is an exchange process, much like a market. Using those two assumptions, they turned the world of political analysis upside down.

Tullock’s career was illustrious and varied. His work on bureaucracies included two important books studying the administrative state that provided fresh ways to analyze the government agencies that all of us caricature from time to time. We know that the public sector can be inefficient and sclerotic. Bureaucrats avoid responsibility and try to claim credit, and without market signals, the quality of their work is difficult to judge. Taking those institutional constraints and assuming individuals are not angels once they are hired by the government, Tullock argued that bureaucrats work for the same reasons all of us do: to make a living, be happy with our work, and gain the esteem and approbation of others. Because metrics to measure “good” work are hard to find in large non-market organizations, promotion is often more about flattery, popularity, and serving your superior’s wishes, which can lead to consensus views and uniformity of opinion, even incorrect ones.

Faulty opinions and unconstrained loyalty loom large in Herron’s world, and he balances realism with a dark humor that’s smart and frequently disarming. I doubt he is familiar with Tullock’s work, but they are kindred spirits in their pursuit of a more realistic way of understanding modern life within large institutions. The premise of the show illustrates another key insight of Tullock: it’s almost impossible to fire incompetent bureaucrats. Slow Horses is based on a fictitious place where MI5 sends those agents who have messed up. Rather than trying to fire them, the flawed agents are sent to a building called “Slough House” run by the aforementioned Jackson Lamb. Lamb is something to behold. He hilariously curses, ridicules, and mocks. But he is also gifted and revered even among the leadership of MI5. Under all of his bluster and cynicism, he helps guide the group in each season through the dangers of spying to endings that might not be “happy” but avoid as much carnage and chaos as possible.