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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Simplifiers v. complicators

Donald Trump.John Locher/AP

In a memorable phrase, the great historian Jacob Burckhardt warned against “terribles simplificateurs.” But there are also such things as terrible complicators.

Last Monday night we saw the first of three showdowns between a terrible complicator — Hillary Clinton — and a terrible simplifier — Donald Trump. The first question of the night was on the economy. Clinton’s reply was a laundry list of wonkish bullet points. Trump’s was to yell repeatedly that the North American Free Trade Agreement was “the worst trade deal ever.”

Clinton turned the tables by getting simpler. “I’ve met people who were stiffed by you and your business, Donald.” “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing to be president.” “As soon as he travels to 112 countries . . . he can talk to me about stamina.”


Trump, by contrast, slid haplessly into complexity. On his income tax returns he was slippery. On his five-year quest to prove President Obama was born abroad, he was convoluted. By the time we got to his 10-year-old son’s insights into cybersecurity, he was barely intelligible. At one point, Trump even used the word “braggadocious”— a word so complicated that the publisher of the Merriam-Webster dictionary had to issue a statement explaining it. When you start using five-syllable adjectives derived from Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” you’ve stopped telling it like it is.

Burckhardt — who first used the phrase “terrible simplifiers” in 1889 — was prophetic about what lay ahead for the world. His “mental picture,” he explained, was of a new generation of “ruffian” leaders who would one day “make short work with voting rights, sovereignty of the people, material well-being, industry, etc.” The reign of the terrible simplifiers would be “the inevitable end of the state based on the rule of law.”

The middle decades of the 20th century fulfilled Burckhardt’s dark prophecy. Hitler (born that very year, 1889), Stalin, and Mao were the ultimate terrible simplifiers, though there were many others who simplified as much but slaughtered fewer. Over huge tracts of the world, the rule of law was destroyed by tyrants who offered instead the most brutally simple of slogans: “Work Makes Free.” “Liquidate the Kulaks.” “Smash the Four Olds.”


Yet something quite different has happened in our own time, though once again the rule of law is the victim. In place of terrible simplification, we have terrible complication.

Take the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was agreed to last year between 12 Pacific Rim countries, including the United States. The draft legislation sent to Congress is over 5,554 pages long, contains more than 2 million words and, when printed out, stands nearly three feet high.

US legislators thought they had suffered enough between Obamacare (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act), which altogether totaled 961 pages, and Dodd-Frank (the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act), which ran to 2,300 pages.

And these are just the laws. Both Obamacare and Dodd-Frank have subsequently excreted great webs of regulation. Since the health care reform was enacted, government agencies have produced 109 final regulations spelling out how the new laws are to be implemented. To get an idea of just how much verbiage this adds up to, assume that each of the 10,535 pages of health care regulations in the Federal Register contains 1,100 words. That gives a total word-count of more than 11 million.


Seriously? Magna Carta — signed by King John 800 years ago last year — was a single sheet of parchment with fewer than 4,000 words. The original draft of the US Constitution was only slightly longer (4,543 words, to be precise). The Declaration of Independence was 1,458 words. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address? The winner at just 272 words. The past was punchy. The present is prolix.

What are the forces responsible for this epidemic of circumlocution and verbosity? The best explanation seems to me the deterioration of standards in both legislation and governance that we see in nearly every democracy. Complexity comes about because professional politicians are more concerned with spin than with substance, the media never cease to howl for “something” to be done about every mishap, the lobbyists ensure that the small print protects the vested interests they serve, and the lawyers profit from the whole damned mess.

The consequences should worry us a lot more than they do, for they extend far beyond unreadably tedious statutes. First, there is the advantage conferred on the corporate insiders, who alone can afford the huge “compliance” departments that are necessary to navigate the sea of verbiage. Second, there is the risk of systemic instability, which grows with every increase in overall complexity. (Anyone who thinks the global financial system has been made more stable by Dodd-Frank should read my former Harvard colleague Hal Scott’s important new book, “Connectedness and Connection.”)


But the biggest danger of all should be now be obvious. The more complex our systems become, the more voters yearn for simplifiers.

The Donald now has just two more chances to dumb down a debate. If Hillary Clinton can keep her habitual complexity in check, I think she wins. If not, he does.

I hate to say it, but it’s terribly simple.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.