So, the three headings that this response covers are:
- First of all, do no harm
- We are a First World country
- The government can’t make you happy
I’m not going to restate the view that the popular discourse about politics does not reflect the reality because I’ve never seen it seriously refuted. But avoiding the common themes of public administration and a widely respected perspective on how the media effects politics is like asking me to play without wingers or strikers. So I’m not going to avoid them.
In addition, there is going to be a problem responding to this whole post for now, because the definition of ‘progressive’ given here is as precise as my definition of ‘hippy’. It seems to be anything that D-squared objects to. He thinks PTAs are ‘progressive’ (!) so you can imagine the problem I have here.
Apparently, it isn’t ‘statist’ either so I could just keep guessing, I suppose. Anyway, here goes:
Summary: If you want to reduce the state’s capacity to do harm, you could ask if that capacity is growing or changing? You could say why it has that capacity and how it can be reduced.
Whatever the definition of ‘progressive’, the call for inaction (which I’m inclined to agree with in some cases) doesn’t acknowledge that many of those government schemes spring from a popular view that ‘something must be done’. You won’t win elections by refusing to respond to popular (tabloid?) demands. There are plenty of electoral reforms that anyone could suggest that would result in an executive that is less responsive to such tabloid demands, but electoral reform falls squarely within the remit of ‘doing something’.
You could say “just ignore them” but the fact that everyone who has succeeded in politics did so by ignoring that advice.
I think that the way ID cards are discussed provides a good overview of how the dynamic between public discourse and those framing policies has stopped working.
“The trade-off between liberty and other social goods is very different for us than for the vast majority of humanity now and throughout history. Even if such tradeoffs exist (which I doubt), they should not be taken. The possible material gains are just too small for what is being sacrificed.”
Those trade-offs are happening all the time – whether we want them or not. It isn’t just governments that remove our liberties.
Or take the topical debate on liberalisation of the laws on prostitution or drugs: Whatever your view on this, there is a case to be made for both of these. But even a serious politician who privately supports liberalisation knows that – if they are responsible for achieving it - the following will happen:
- The advocates of liberalisation will demand more – ‘hasn’t gone far enough’ etc– so there’s no reward for doing less
- The press will treat it as ‘the end of a thousand years of history’ (the same papers whose columnists have demanded liberalisation)
- The first drug-related fatality / offspring-turned-hooker will result in an orchestrated ‘family’ campaign in which the politician concerned will be called upon to take sole responsibility
- The initial advocates of liberalisation will not offer any support, or intervene
I’d like a lot of fairly strong politicians instead of the current situation - a very small number of over-powerful and highly compromised ones. That politicians, by themselves, do harm is a moot point anyway. What happens is that politicians make a request to the institutions that, in theory, are supposed to respond to them, and the request is then combined with the pre-existing strategic intent of those organisations.
The net result is, therefore, very different from the one intended by the politicians – but the politicians have little choice but to take the blame for those outcomes. To ignore the strategic intent of bureaucracies is to present less than half an argument, and that is not – I would argue – reasonable.
There is no question that politicians should be more careful than they are about what they wish for, because their officials often delight in serving it up to them. A bit like those wishes Dr Faustus made.
But, currently, the meagre rewards for initiativitis are preferable to the penalties for inactivity. So if you prefer less active government, prepare yourself or further decades of frustration – until this problem is cracked. This is probably my main argument: That the way that politics and policy is discussed is counterproductive.
Alternatively, if you wish to reduce the capacity of individual politicians, departments of state, or other players to do harm, the obvious thing to do would be to argue for smaller departments of state – and stronger, more dispersed equivalents.
I’ve always argued that politicians should have less capacity – as individuals, or within their offices – of doing as much as they appear to be able to do. This is why this blog is quite repetitive in it’s advocacy of…
- Stronger local democracy – and regional constituent assemblies
- Political decentralisation – that cabinets choose the Prime Minister, rather than the other way around
- ‘In-and-outers’ – political parties that are able to redirect the state when they win an election
- Weaker political parties in other ways – parties that have less hold over elected representatives and less patronage than they do at the moment.
If you search this blog on the term ‘constipators’, you’ll see what I mean.One of the measurable outcomes of this last strategy, I would suggest, would be shorter manifestoes that state principles rather than specific prescriptions.
I’ve also argued that the power and influence of the mass media should be diluted as they are, I believe, the biggest engine room that has driven the increased political centralisation that has taken place over the last century.
I’m happy to admit that I’m a bit stuck on how to achieve this as I’m not keen on censorship per se. One of the reasons that I blog is because I’m hoping someone will pop up in my comments box with an idea on how this can be done.
Is this all post-hoc rationalisation on my part, I hear you ask? Well, use that little search box at the top of this blog to find posts about “representative democracy”, “decentralisation” or “demagogic simplification” for starters.
On the other hand, I would suggest that D-Squared call for inactivity translates into a call for atrophy. I don’t think that this is a position that he would sustain for very long, and that’s why I’m suggesting that it is a post-hoc rationalisation that has been hastily drafted to counter the charge of ‘negativism’ that led to his response.
I’d certainly find it impossible to believe that this version of liberalism is the rationalisation behind most negativism from other bloggers - which is why I'd suggest that narcissism or cowardice are a better explanation.
(I’ve started indexing these posts using the new blogger indexing system, but it’s far from finished at the moment, for which apologies.)