C. Northcote Parkinson – An Appreciation

Few management philosophers have combined so much wit and wisdom, and none was as charming, as Professor C. Northcote Parkinson. His friends called him Cyril. He was a stocky, ruddy man who looked like a merchant marine captain. He talked that way too: with confident precision. He wrote some sixty books, including Parkinson’s Law, Mrs. Parkinson’s Law, and the The Law and the Profits, and delivered countless lectures. An extraordinary amount of truth lies in some of his sayings. The most famous, of course, is “Parkinson’s Law,” namely: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. He cites Whitehall:

Colonial Office Staff
1935                                                          372
1954 (with 17 fewer colonies)                1601

He once gave me another admirable example:

Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California, asked me to address his cabinet. I told him about the Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco with Oakland. Fourteen painters were appointed to paint the bridge from one end to the other, and then paint their way back again. Since then the spraying machine has been introduced, so that the job can be done much faster.

Nevertheless, by the time Ronald Reagan had become governor, the number of men engaged in permanently printing the bridge had risen. I believe to 77! After my talk to his cabinet Ronald Reagan tackled this problem, and was able, I heard, to cut the staff of painters to 50-odd. I don’t doubt that they have since crept back up to 90.

I might say in passing that those are his exact spoken words. Cyril Parkinson was one of the rare individuals who could speak a language pure enough to go directly into print.

A more recent instance of his First Law is the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Daniel Seligman has noted inFortune that according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, the number of Department of Agriculture employees has since 1932 risen implacably by 2.7 percent per annum, while the number of farmers has declined by 2 percent per annum.

Parkinson’s Second Law, Expenditure rises to meet income, does not require amplification for any observer of government. The U.S. experience has been that higher taxes mean bigger deficits. The only way to limit the growth of government is to starve it.

A corollary is Expansion means complexity, and complexity decay. This principle seems as immutable as Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt.” In the U.S., one would have to note the tremendous cost of over-regulation, a variation on complexity that some economists estimate robs us of up to a third of our GNP growth. Parkinson strongly favored pushing decision-making down as far down as it can go. He loved the way American companies often have autonomous divisions that may even compete with each other. He thought that devolution would be good for Scotland, and joining Europe bad for Britain.

In many countries, Parkinson observed, declining productivity arises from the twin burdens of inflation and taxes, which tempt the worker to spend now rather than produce and save. Why should a 60-year-old work like a demon to save for his children when almost half of his income goes in tax (including state and city), and more than half of what’s left after that is taken by estate taxes? Parkinson (anticipating Laffer) calculates that as you cut the tax bite people work much harder–as in Hong Kong–and government revenues rise. Of course, this means that government must concentrate on its total receipts, rather than using high taxes as a tool of social engineering, which by cutting incentives may lead to economic stagnation.

On this them, Parkinson, visiting Sweden, once startled his hosts with a “Swedish Law:” Policies designed to increase production increase employment; policies designed to increase employment do everything but. The world as a whole has turned over enough so that this point of view is now generally accepted, even in Sweden, except in trade union circles, which often believe in make-work projects. But if you soak up the labor pool in non-productive government jobs, as Peron and Mitterrand did in their first incarnations, you have a drop in overall output accompanied by a rise in taxes to pay for the unneeded public sector employees. This turns unemployment into under-employment, which is typical of socialist economies and may be worse than out-and-out unemployment. The Russian joke used to be, “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” The Bulgarian refinement was “They can’t pay us as little as we work.”

One that he tried out on me but has not been popularized is Democracy equals inflation. Where the working population, through control of the electoral process, ultimately determines its conditions of employment, there will be more demand for higher pay than for increased production. One sees this acutely in our big cities, which are strangled by municipal unions.

Parkinson observes that the peak of magnificence of an institution’s physical headquarters often coincides with the start of its period of decadence. Attila had his headquarters in the saddle–no Pentagons. Conversely, the League of Nations expired shortly after occupying its palace in Geneva, the Bourbons started downhill upon the completion of Versailles, and so on. Domestically, there are Donald Trump’s “trophy properties”” the Trump Tower, the Trump Palace, and the other trumpery that lead to Chapter 11.

An important suggestion that as far as I know Parkinson never published is that when something goes wrong, do not try, try again. Instead, pull back, pause, and carefully work out what organizational shortcomings produced the failure. Then, correct those deficiencies. Only after that return to the assault. “When a new general takes command of a defeated army, he does not immediately launch into a series of attacks. He reconstructs the chain of command, retrains the unit, and gets the army ready to fight effectively.”

One of his observations to me, which must be recognized as generally true, is this: “In America all professors of economics tend to be leftists. Why? Because if an able youngster has an interest in economics, in figures, and has conservative views, he goes into business. Whereas if he has left-wing views, he becomes a professor. So academic economists tend to be left-wingers. Business should never have let that come about. You let the case go by default. The only answer is for business, in turn–having let the left wing capture the schools–to capture television. It’s essential that this be done. Television is far more important than the schools. People get their ideas from television, and American television now has a left-wing bias.”

Persons familiar with the Kafkaesque techniques of Russian and Chinese—and, alas, other–governments will recognize the grim validity of Delay is the deadliest form of denial. “Justice delayed is justice denied” was, of course, said by others, and endless stalling is now a standard litigator’s trick. “Jerking them around,” lawyers call the process. They spend years of time and millions of dollars on unnecessary discovery proceedings, drag in the opponent’s friends and relations to embarrass him to the maximum extent possible, and perhaps get him to settle for much less than he should get to avoid inordinate further expense. (Perhaps the answer would be to stick such pettifoggers with the other side’s costs if the judgment goes against them, as in England.)

Yet another of Professor Parkinson’s useful principles is that the matters most debated in a deliberative body tend to be the minor ones where everybody understands the issues. This insight flows from another Parkinson law, that deliberative bodies become decreasingly effective after they pass five to eight members. In other words, a board of fifty has little chance of making the large, often technical decisions, or even of selecting the right subjects to debate. Often it will be dominated by unrepresentative insiders: a politburo. For this reason, a large board usually creates an executive committee that actually does the business, and in essence becomes the real board. When that committee, inevitably expanding, becomes too cumbersome in turn, it should hive off a subcommittee small enough to act.

Parkinson thought that both the American and British legislative systems are seriously defective, and proposed a solution: secret voting. “You may be aware,” he once told me, “that until the nineteenth century, popular elections took place in public, on the ‘hustings.’ A man would spring up and cry, ‘I vote for Sir James!’ Obviously, this invited every sort of pressure and bribery, and in due course popular votes were made secret. In the legislature the voting remained public. Why? It is now technically possible for a legislator to press a button and record his vote electronically. That would permit him to vote according to his best judgment, instead of responding to pressures that may be contrary to the public interest.” Government that is too responsive to shifting popular enthusiasms–government by poll, or as some have urged here, “electronic town meetings”–Parkinson considered disastrous.

“Popular democracy as an experiment is dead, in my mind,” he once said to me at dinner. “There are many symptoms of its collapse in both our countries. In England, for example, educational standards are falling rapidly, although not yet to the degree seen in America. Crime rates are soaring. Employment is declining. These are some of the prime concerns of a country! In parts of northwest England, government has essentially broken down: Liverpool is an example. Northern England is sinking. And chronic inflation is a very bad sign.”

A more important Parkinson rule than many realize is simply, “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” It’s almost an echo of Talleyrand’s famous advice to a young diplomat, “Surtout point de zèle”: very roughly, “Don’t get carried away.” ■

This piece originally appeared in the June 1, 1993 edition of The American Spectator.