Stephen Tall’s posting about his boredom with the left/right debate in the Lib Dems prompted me to finish off this posting which had been sitting in my drafts tray for a few months:
I don’t normally expect to find books on liberalism in a hotel library, particularly not one in Thailand.
We had ended up staying there by chance. After heavy rains, our original hotel in the centre of Chiang Mai had been flooded out and we were transferred to the Four Seasons Resort. And there, on another rainy day, I found Robert Reich’s book, ‘The Resurgent Liberal: And Other Unfashionable Prophecies’, left behind by another guest some time after its original publication date in February 1991.
I found it at a good time, since I was in need of some resurgence.
Truth be told, much of it wasn’t very helpful. Most of the book consisted of articles praising to the German and Japanese economic systems in comparison with the U.S. system. There is more of an argument to be had on that topic than a superficial reading of growth and unemployment statistics might suggest, but, perhaps understandably, these weren’t the articles that grabbed my attention.
After 29 articles of economic analysis, I got to Chapter 30, with the title of ‘Competence or Ideology?’.
This proved particularly stimulating on various levels.
Firstly by putting forward the thesis that it is the job of politicians, not only to understand and reflect the wishes of society, but to take a lead in “civic discovery” – “engaging the public in rethinking how certain problems are defined, alternative solutions envisioned, and responsibilities for action allocated”. This fits with a personal preference for providing voters with a wider set of political information than straight assertion of “this is what we think and why the other people are bad”. It’s not enough to run focus groups: politicians need to lead. But they need to lead in a way that respects the intelligence of the electorate and that genuinely gives them the space and information they need to shape their views on political issues in an informed way.
But, more critically, it proved stimulating because the later part of the article provided a framework for escaping from the entirely tedious Manichean view of the choices facing liberalism (or politics in general) as ‘state vs market’.
In essence, he summarised three philosophical approaches to the operation of public life – bureaucratic absolutism, democratic deliberation and utilitarianism – and took the view that democratic deliberation has recently been subordinated to the other two approaches.
I found this incredibly helpful.
‘State bureaucracy vs privatisation’ is not the only choice we face. Philosophically, reinvigorating localism and local democratic decision-making – fighting the centalised bureaucracy with its flood of ministerial regulations and army of unaccountable Whitehall-controlled quangos – is a valid and important third approach that can be taken to the problems of improving public provision and making it more responsive to people’s needs. The democratic state is not the same as the bureaucratic state.
Privatisation is not automatically the answer, indeed it can actually be a tool of state bureacracy and have little to do with improving choice or responsiveness. Subcontracting a public service to a private company may be a useful way for government to get round the rigidity of public sector employment conditions, but has little to do with using market mechanisms to give the citizen more choice or improve public service responsiveness. I’ve spent long enough in my life working for big companies to know that it is primarily competition, not the mere fact of being the private sector, that keeps organisations responsive.
Elections or direct democracy on the other hand are currently undervalued as a way of increasing responsiveness. I’m a strong believer in the power of contestability in holding public or private services accountable. Where I have a choice of providers, I can focus an organisation’s mind on my needs by threatening to take my business elsewhere. Where there is no choice of providers, I’d quite like to have the power to sack the person in charge via the ballot box. In London, mayoral elections have done considerably more to improve public transport than Gordon Brown’s privatisation of the tube. There are huge opportunities to improve public provision by making unelected roles electable, and by modernising our electoral system to make those roles that are elected harder to hang on to without genuine popular support.
In short, “economic liberalism” and “social liberalism” are not the only games in town. We need to throw a few more adjectives into the mix. In setting the direction for the party, we also need to consider other options, such as environmental liberalism, localist liberalism and deliberative liberalism. The simplistic “public vs private” debate might have been interesting about fifteen years ago, but to find the way forward, we’re going to have to try a bit harder than that.