First Principles


“Where are there flying cars, Daddy?”

“Flying cars are everywhere. We call them planes.”

“Ha! Planes are not cars, Daddy. I’m not gullible!”

People are so focused on form (in this instance a flying object that looks like a car) that they overlook the function (conveyance by flight). Original visions of inventions or ideas set boundaries because in part we can see them as they have been. Perhaps that is why in the Bond film The Man with The Golden Gun (1974), villain Francisco Scaramanga – he of supernumerary nipples – drives and flies a converted AMC Matador coupe, an actual flying car, to wow viewers’ preconceptions. A more realistic example of a flying car might be The General Lee, as seen in The Dukes of Hazzard, which is an actual flying car, even if the limits of its flight are over hedges and the squad car of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane – not the sort of vehicle you would replace transatlantic flights with. How many inspiring “future of transportation” videos and storyboards have there been over the years involving flying cars “about to break into the mass market”?

There is a method by which to step outside the boundaries created by the past and heritage. It is called First Principles Thinking – breaking everything down to a set of truths – and its opposite is analogy thinking. Analogy thinking goes along the lines of “I run a mining business so I’m like Tiny Rowland” or “Uber runs taxis and I think the Uber model will work with hosting.” Elon Musk is a big advertiser of First Principles thinking and disses analogy thinking as dangerous and shortcutting – on this, Musk is right.

“What is a conservative, Daddy?”

“A conservative combines a disposition to preserve with an ability to improve. Conservatives are people who love something actual and want to retain it.”

“Bollocks, Daddy. Here’s a pipe and slippers.”

“I don’t smoke pipes and I don’t like slippers.”

“No, but that is what your definition deserves.”

Note the answer “ability to improve”. Yet too often conservatives are analogists and fail to break things down. The tall Ionic-Corinthian pillars of Kolkata’s post office are as eye-catching now as when they were constructed in 1884 but that does not mean that plans to turn down a revamp of the building into a hotel – as email kills off traditional post offices around the world – should be rejected, or that the building should necessarily become an Amazon depot as “Amazon is like the Post Office”. 

Conservatives may love certain ideas, but they would do better to be always suspicious of the ideas they inherit. Old conventions and previous forms are too often accepted without question by conservatives and, once accepted, they set a boundary around creativity. The recent online gatherings of parliament may seem sterile to traditionalists like Jacob Rees-Mogg but – to taxpayers who look at MPs’ travel bills from such distant outposts as Penzance and Inverness – online sittings have their attractions. A civil servant may have been in post for years but actually what he needs is an annual interview to find out what he really does – if he has no useful role then off he goes.

Falling into the trap of analogy thinking is one of the conservative’s greatest weaknesses, as is “continuous improvement” which also tends to occur within the boundary set by the original vision. First principles thinking requires you to abandon your allegiance to previous forms and put the function front and centre. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the functional outcome you are looking to achieve? Are the Palaces of Westminster really the right places to conduct business? Is making non-payment of the BBC licence fee really going to reduce the BBC’s bias?

“Wightman, you are sounding like a progressive.”

No. Actually, I sound more like a Victorian.

The “progressive” (stolen version of the word, rather than the Disraelian version) spans the worst of both worlds. Not only do they tend to seek to throw the baby out with the bathwater as they work towards their impossible latest version of Utopia, they also fall into the continuous improvement/analogy thinking traps. Progressives are an irredeemable species altogether.

Optimise the function. If necessary ignore the form. This is how you learn to think for yourself.

“What is a conservative, Daddy?”

“Pragmatic best of the old. Pragmatic best of the new. One who fights for truth, justice and security. One who sees the point of cars and does not waste one’s time trying to make them fly.”