When you buy a house in Britain, there is an extensive and well-established series of checks you must perform to ensure the property is suitable for habitation. When undertaking a survey, you should ensure that the boundaries of the property conform to those recorded at the Land Registry, and that the property does not lie on a flood plain or risk structural damage from coastal erosion or subsidence. Unfortunately, there seems to be no mechanism to protect householders from the worst possible eventuality — which is to find out that you have a lawyer living next door.
Wherever you have a shared wall or fence, there exist countless opportunities to be a bit of an arsehole — suing your neighbour about an overhanging branch, or claiming damages to your greenhouse from falling fruit or invasive roots. For most of us, thankfully, the cost of engaging a lawyer outweighs any potential gains from arseholery, so we simply don’t bother. But if you are a lawyer already, that constraint does not apply: you can be an arsehole for free in your spare time. There is a petrol station not far from where I live where you can’t use the outdoor cash machine after about 9 p.m. because a retired barrister nearby complained that the beeping of the keys somehow interfered with his human rights.
There are lots of things in life that need to be expensive to prevent people overusing them. The legal system is one such thing. It’s so expensive that, unless I find myself faced with a possible ten-stretch in the nonces’ wing of Wakefield Prison, I’ll generally give the legal fraternity a miss. But this is still preferable to a world in which everyone could issue legal proceedings against each other for a few pounds and a few minutes’ work. In such a place, the most litigious crackpots could prevent almost anyone from doing anything.
Yet I am sure right now that someone in Silicon Valley has an exciting plan to ‘democratise’ and ‘disintermediate’ legal services. Artificial intelligence, I fear, will in ten years’ time make it very cheap and easy simply to instigate litigation online. All these developments completely ignore the fact that, in a complex society, easy doesn’t always mean good. There is an optimum amount of friction which the system needs in order to work.
Driverless electric cars will cost almost nothing to run, and you won’t get tired or bored driving them. The net result will be that the roads will be unusable by anyone who is in a bit of a hurry or whose journey is important. Every road will be gridlocked by total idiots, or retirees, who have nothing better to do than sit in traffic watching daytime television, probably while drunk.
The typewriter, and with it the typing pool, is another example of a useful inefficiency. Speaking to people who worked at Ogilvy & Mather in the 1960s, I was told that any young man who wished to make a success of his career was well advised to spend at least an hour or so each week Terry–Thomasing around the women in the typing pool. If you did not make friends with them quickly, it was more or less impossible for you to produce a memo in less than a fortnight. Today, in our age of email overload, it strikes me that this was a brilliant arrangement. It meant that if you received a memo then, it probably came from someone senior, or else a junior person whose message was sufficiently important to burn a few earned favours in its creation. Now any fool can send anything instantly. Bill Gates described his vision as ‘business at the speed of thought’. This, in fact, accurately describes a nightmare.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.