Rory Sutherland

How oneupmanship wrecks things for everyone

You can’t just have people round for a pie and booze now; you have to mess about with ramekins. Thanks for nothing, Delia

How oneupmanship wrecks things for everyone
Text settings

‘There’s a little bit of a fascist in all of us. For some, the tragedy of human want may provoke an impatient urge to expropriate and centralise economic resources. Others, alarmed at the world’s exploding population, may be attracted by calls for a programme of mass compulsory sterilisation.

But for me it’s letter boxes and street numbering. I want order. I want consistency. I want standards. And I want eye-watering penalties for property owners who try their fellow Britons’ patience and waste our time by making their addresses impossible to find.’

You may remember reading this from Matthew Parris in last week’s Spectator. When delivering leaflets in Derbyshire, he was infuriated by the difficulty of matching houses to their address. A trivial point, you may have thought. Not so. In fact Matthew had uncovered two issues which preoccupy practitioners of evolutionary biology, game theory, political science and economics. These are libertarianism’s twin Achilles heels — where individual and collective interests diverge.

In a perfect world, every house would be numbered — with odd numbers on one side, even numbers on the other. Unfortunately, two conflicting forces erode this happy state of affairs. One is the free-rider problem; the other is status signalling (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘wankification’).

The free-rider problem occurs when you exploit your neighbour’s house numbers to save the cost of displaying your own. If the people at numbers 43 and 47 display their numbers on their gateposts, the chap at 45 has no incentive to display anything himself. If enough people adopt this approach, the entire system collapses.

Status signalling causes the same problem in a different way. A house with a name is classier than one with a number, and so people ‘wankify’ their address — renaming number 47 as ‘Rose Cottage’. Like the woman my father overheard in the Monmouth Lidl answering her phone with the words ‘I can’t talk now, I’m in Waitrose,’ these people prize relative status over locational accuracy.

Both problems occur in nature. The cuckoo is a free-rider. Runaway signalling occurs when oneupmanship runs out of control (a peacock is a wankified pheasant). The same problem ruins the design of everyday objects — so the good old wine glass has gradually evolved through wankification into a stupid balloon on an ever-lengthening stem: it doesn’t fit in the dishwasher, and the centre of gravity is so high that every time a sparrow farts it falls over and flings its contents across the table.

Many other goods are ruined by wankification. Food, for instance. Instead of just inviting some people over for lots of booze and a pie, you now have to spend two days preparing things in ramekins. The result is you can no longer be bothered to invite anyone to your house. Thanks for nothing, Delia. Private education is now hoplessly wankified, too: when did I ask for an all-weather hockey pitch and a Year 10 trip to Borneo?

These twin problems: free-riding and oneupmanship — free-riders who are happy to exploit the efforts of others vs people who are so individually competitive that they screw up the common good for everyone else — seem a little like a microcosm of modern Britain. If anyone can find a non-fascist solution to the house numbering problem, perhaps it can be applied more widely. If not, we can all move to Tokyo, where there are no street names and houses are numbered in the order in which they were built.

Your father should know

My 13-year-old daughter recently asked me, ‘What’s a sex tape?’ After mumbling evasively for a bit, I realised she was perfectly familiar with revenge porn: the bit she didn’t understand was the word ‘tape’.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.