Power Line University (1)

A number of readers have asked periodically whether any of my courses are online, or available by videotape. Unfortunately not, though I may try to change this next year depending on whether I make a move to a more conventional lecture format. Right now, most of my classes are long, and seminar style, which means lots of classroom discussion and a sometimes chaotic direction that would make for awful viewing. (As one student said to me one time, “Prof. Hayward, you’re not exactly linear, are you?” I think I’ll put that on my business cards: “The Non-Linear Prof. Hayward.”)

There is, however, one segment of my classrooms that is adaptable for Power Line: my frequent use of scenes from the old BBC series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister.”   For one thing, virtually no students have ever seen it before. And you need to entertain students these days. Second, the creators of the show were two graduate students in economics at the London School of Economics (hence the frequent digs at the LSE in the show) who were taken with public choice theory, and realized it could make for great comedy. And so much of the show is a brilliantly effective—and accurate—explanation of the perverse self-interested incentives and behavior of bureaucrats. I’ve thought about teaching a whole course on the administrative state drawn entirely from episodes of this series (an idea first suggested to me by Clifford Bates of the University of Warsaw). I usually discover that students go off and watch the whole series on their own after I have shown some scenes.

If you’ve never seen it, the main story line is always the same: the elected minister (and later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker always falls prey to the bureaucratic manipulations of his two senior civil servants, especially Sir Humphrey Appleby, played superbly by the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne. I find students grasp the point immediately, and always gets them talking. Plus it enlivens the course readings that are otherwise deadly dull (because no one, with the partial exception of James Q. Wilson, can make bureaucracy interesting).

My favorite scene to start students with comes from the but the middle of an episode of “Yes, Minister” called “The Whiskey Priest,” but only the whole episode is available on YouTube, so I’ll come back to it in a future post. For now, let’s start off “Power Line University” with this 2:45 long excerpt of Sir Humphrey instructing the younger private secretary Bernard Woolley on why it is important to keep the “right people” in charge of government. Although this is more than 30 years old, I’m sure it will sound very familiar to a certain candidate’s supporters right now: