IF you haven’t heard of Marie Kondo, you are in the minority. The petite cleaning lady from Japan has conquered the world with her best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying.
It takes something pretty special to become a global phenomenon, let alone a verb (as in ‘I’m going to Marie Kondo my bedroom’). All credit to anyone who can turn the drudgery of de-cluttering into a confidence-boosting celebration of life.
As Adam Smith wrote: ‘What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.’ In laying out her philosophy of tidying, Marie Kondo has inadvertently told us how to fix the world.
Government has become like an excessively cluttered house. The passage of time sees us ineluctably surrounded by stuff we don’t actually want. From Jane Fonda tummy-toners to George Foreman grills. Pretty soon, your once-pristine property resembles a junk shop.
Yet somehow we cannot let go. This is what behavioural psychologists call the endowment effect. We find it much harder to get rid of what we’ve got, even if we would never go out and buy it.
It is this human quirk that has turned the self-storage unit into the biggest real estate bonanza going. The annual spend by British households on self-storage far exceeds the value of the stuff stored. They’d be richer and freer if they just burned the lot and started afresh.
The same thing can be said for modern government. Thanks to a blend of sentimentality, obsolescence, fleeting aspirations, and things that seemed like a good idea at the time, we have accumulated too much: too much law, too much bureaucracy, too much cost and too much waste.
The result is a chaotic mess. We would all be richer and freer if those in charge could just find the courage to throw out the junk and start afresh.
But how to find that impetus and where to start? This is where Marie Kondo comes in. Her approach is simple and clever. As with so many great insights, it begins with an inversion: Instead of deciding what to throw away, decide what you really want to keep. Keep only the things that inspire joy. Then throw everything else away.
In other words, if a piece of legislation or initiative is not great – if it is not beautifully drafted, really important and at the core of what we want Britain to be – repeal it and abolish all the quangos and jobsworths that hang off it.
Secondly, sort by category. Pile up all the criminal laws and chuck away all those silly non-crimes. Gather the 20,000 pages of tax law and bin at least half. Media interventions and restrictions on freedom of expression – the lot can go. All that dross from our EU days can be dumped.
Crucially, do this as quickly and completely as possible. Be joyfully ruthless about the process. We would never pass the Human Rights Act or repressive hate speech laws. Nor would we ever give away so much legislative power to opaque and unaccountable bodies, most of which have been nothing but embarrassments. So ditch them all and do it quickly. You won’t miss them when they’re gone.
We can be pretty gung-ho about it, particularly because the UK is a common law country. As a back-up to statutory legislation we have centuries of laws and principles made by judges.
The truth is, if you repealed every Act of Parliament tomorrow, you would barely notice the difference. Under common law, you could still enforce contracts, convict criminals, sell houses, execute wills or even divorce your spouse.
Moreover, even if something important did get lobbed on to the bonfire, we could revive it pretty fast. What Covid has demonstrated is that our parliamentary system is well equipped to pass legislation in a matter of hours if it is really needed.
If we are not quick and ruthless, we will soon get sidetracked, while special interest groups and the Blob will mobilise against us. Cleaning house is all about momentum. If the momentum is lost, the whole task fails.
Reduce until something clicks. As Marie Kondo has observed, you reach a point where you know you have just the right amount. Just as we know that we have way too much interference right now, we will know when we hit the sweet spot.
Reduction itself produces insight. The late Apple supremo Steve Jobs constantly relied on reductive intuition. As Nokia was adding entire keyboards to mobile phones, Jobs could see that things were getting silly. So he stripped it right back to one button.
As he observed: ‘When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.
‘That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.
‘If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.’
One house we need to get in order is the House of Lords. Lords Reform gets written up almost every day. The reason it is so problematic is that you cannot fix something until you define its purpose.
The House of Lords could take up the mantle as the Marie Kondo of government. One way would be to give it a mandate to repeal excessive legislation. A better way would be to attach sunset clauses to all UK legislation with the exception of constitutional and referendum-backed statutes.
Thus, legislation would simply expire after 20 years unless the House of Lords (or Commons) thought it worth reviving for another 20 years. This is in essence a market-based approach: if no one buys products or services, they disappear. Similarly, if neither house can be bothered to re-enact legislation, it passes into history.
This is an ideal role for the Lords. Their distance from the electorate becomes a benefit not a weakness. Ministers will always be too busy firefighting today’s problems to clear out the legislative attic. The Lords can give it the consideration it deserves.
Too much government is imposing an unbearable financial burden on taxpayers. It is getting in the way of core government functions such as defending our borders, treating cancer and educating children. A focused government is a more effective government.
The language of Marie Kondo is not about cuts. It is about rediscovering what is important. It is the process of simplifying and cherishing what is truly valuable.
Just as Marie Kondo inspired millions to spend their bank holidays clearing out their homes, her philosophy can de-clutter government with thoroughness and joy. If voters can get Marie Kondo, they can get deregulation.
Moreover, in deciding what we want to keep, we can forge a national identity and purpose – the very things we have been lacking. In deciding what to keep, we discover what we want to become. As Marie Kondo puts it: ‘Putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart. Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.’
If The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying can transform people, it can transform nations.