Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Elected officials, joint subscription and historical vitality

I've recently discovered Jason O'Mahony's blog - a good political site focussed on Irish and EU politics.

There's a fair bit to agree with there and a few good provocations. I'd take issue with this post though - or at least two of the 11 things we'll be thankful to the recession for.

I started to take this up in the comments, but I think there's something a bit rude about hijacking someone's comment thread with very long responses so I decided to post it here. The two points I've a problem with are....
  • Point three: "We’ll have less politicians. And they’ll be cheaper." 
  • Point five:  "Borrowing will no longer be easy. Demanding extra spending will no longer pass without some challenge as to who pays?" 
 In the comments, Jason says:
"We have over 1600 elected officials in this country. We don’t have enough? As for joint subscription: It’s not unreasonable for people to know that if someone else wants something, someone else has to pay for it."
Ireland doesn't have 1600 elected officials (if that's the number). It has 1600 elected representatives. They're very different things. The problem is that, in Ireland more than the UK (for example) most of those representatives actually think that they're elected officials who don't have to do the unpleasant side of officialdom (eg 'work' or making decisions that involve trade-offs).

I spend a lot of time there, as it happens, and as far as I can see, it's a politics that is reduced to the functional 'pot-hole' populism where an elected 'representative' spends most of their time getting photographed next to items of public expenditure that they've brought home to the voters. They don't think that it's their job to deliberate in the public interest, to enquire into abuse, corruption or misuse of power.

They leave all of that to lobbyists and a handful of political fixers. And that would be slightly more acceptable if there was any really aggressive journalism going on, but that's on the way out as well. This is a good deal worse, by the way, in Ireland than it is in the UK. At least we have a well-funded 'public service broadcaster.'

Over the past 30 years, we've seen a de-ideologicalisation in politics (the 'end of history'?) in which (for example) no-one understands that there's a problem with 'joint subscription' - no-one sees how that makes collective action near-impossible. How it puts us all on the road to gated communities, 'free' schools and a politics that is only about gaming public expenditure so that it's directed towards particularly active groups of citizens.

How it hamstrings institutions like the EU (where the debate increasingly turns towards some kind of 'subscription' relationship in which value-for-money trumps the need for historic vitality) or the US where 'red states' are full of anti-tax campaigners who manage to also be the largest drawers upon federal budgets.

We're at a point in history when western democracies are starting to lose the automatic claim to being the best agents for prosperity (no-one's as interested in fairness as they used to be), and this is largely the product of enervated politics. As Burke put it...
"When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people." 
That's what you get when elected officials administer a 'joint subscription' model of government. We've never needed politicians more than we do now. And we've never had fewer of them.

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