I realise that the last few posts have tested the patience of my readers. But the last one (however tortuous its construction) was actually quite important in its conclusion that the 5-6 academic disciplines we have come to rely on to make sense of the world have made a pig’s breakfast of the job when it comes to the issue of the role of the State in the contemporary world
Libertarian and anarchistic readers, I grant you, are not interested in questions such as the shape, strength, role or future of the State – they just want to get it off their backs.
But most of us still look to government for various types of protection – if not for things such as health and the education of our children.
And this is a blog of someone who, a bit like Candide, has been trying to understand the role of government (and the shape and meaning of the State) for some 50 years – as a thoroughly practical question – admittedly well-versed in what was initially the small body literature on “public administration” which, after the 1990s, became a tsunami about “public management”.
But trying to have a conversation about this not so much with academics as with real people – whether officials, political colleagues or, latterly, beneficiaries in eastern European countries…..
It’s in that open and inquiring spirit that I draft this post for those who actually want to explore the question “How can the State realistically perform better for the average citizen?”
28 years ago, after all, “the State” imploded in central Europe – and the key question people were actually asking in those countries then was the shape it needed to take for its new function under capitalism….. Noone had been prepared for this moment – what little discussion had taken place about reshaping core institutions of the state in the 70s and 80s were academic and had actually been the other way around – about how the transition from capitalism to socialism would be managed! Not that this deterred tens of thousands of advisers from descending on central European capitals in the early 90s and dispensing their advice (full disclosure - I was one of them!)
We basically could be divided into two groups – the “missionaries” whose mission was to sell the snake-oil of privatisation and the idea of “the minimal state”; and the “mercenaries” who focused rather on the mechanics of building up the new institutions required of a “liberal democracy” (see my paper Missionaries and mercenaries
More to the point, in 1999 I wrote a book which was effectively a calling card for the officials with whom I would be working in Central Asian until 2007 - In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) I find it stands up pretty well to the test of time….….
Twenty years later, it’s not unreasonable to ask how that debate panned out – not just in central Europe -a full 10 of these years have been years of austerity for people in Western Europe whose governments engaged in major cutbacks of state programmes and activities; have increasingly divested themselves of responsibilities (in favour of the private sector) – and/or automated their activities in various forms of E-government….
Let’s take 1997 as a starting point – this was the year when the World Bank published The State in a Changing World - a more measured discussion of what the state was good for than had been possible under the full-scale Washington Consensus of the previous decade…..
- That report looked at the contrast between the scope of state activities and their effectiveness (or results). It argued that states needed to concentrate on those activities which only they can carry out – it called this the “capabilities” approach…….
- That, of course, is a very technical approach. It says nothing about intentions – ie the extent to which those “in charge” are seriously interested in the pursuit of “the public good”….
- But lots of analysts will tell us that such a pursuit is doomed to failure – Rabbie Burns put it well when he wrote “The best-laid plans o’ men gang aft a-glay” - best translated as “life is one long F***Up” !!
One of my favourite writers - AO Hirschmann – actually devoted a book (”The Rhetoric of Reaction”) to examining three arguments conservative writers use for dismissing the hopes of social reformers:
- the perversity thesis holds that any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
- The futility thesis argues that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”
- the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.
And indeed…..we ignore these arguments at our peril….Social reformers all too often allow their hopes to masquerade as serious arguments….
Most of us (at least of my generation) would like to return to the days, if not of trains running on time, of what we saw as trustworthy (if not totally reliable) state services….We have become aware of the illusion and downright perversity of the talk of “choice”.
Sadly, however, Pandora’s box can’t be closed or – as a friend and colleague used to put it “We are where we are”……
- IT, social media and surveillance are hard (and ever more developing) realities…..
- Public debt has soared simply because governments considered that banks were too big to fail and “socialised” their losses
- demographic and economic (let alone technological) trends put even more strain on public budgets
Of course, each country has been and remains very different in public expectations of the State.
- The public in Northern European countries still trust the State and its various custodians and public servants – although the “third sector” has always been important in countries such as Germany (eg health insurance).
- Southern European countries such as Italy are completely different – with family and informal networks being the dominant influence. Spain still has a residue of an anarchist streak – particularly in the Basque and Catalonia regions – and therefore a strong cooperative sector.
- Central and Eastern European countries suffer from the worst of all worlds – with public services such as education and health chronically underfunded and the private sector taking up the slack for all but the poorest groups; and no cooperative or voluntary sector worth talking about. Even the church in Romania is funded by taxation!!
It was a single book last year – Dismembered; how the attack on the state harms us all – which started me off on a series of posts which led to my little E-book on the subject Reforming the State
Recommended Reading about “the State”
- Government at a Glance 2017; A recent and very handy analysis of the scope and impact of public services. Only for the 35 member states of OECD (so the Baltic States, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia are included – but not Bulgaria or Romania)
- Those who want a more detailed historical treatment can now dip into Francis Fukuyama’s marvellous 2 volumes which he introduces here. I never imagined that 700 page books with titles such as The Origins of Political Order – from prehuman times to the French Revolution (2011); and Political Order and Political Decay – from the industrial revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (2014) could be so engrossing....
- Governance for Health (2012 WHO) A good overview of health indicators and coverage (if that's what turns you on)
- Governance in the 21st century (2001 OECD) An interesting - if rather geeky - discussion of trends
- Globalisation and the State (2000); a good (short) overview article
- The State in a Changing World (World Bank 1997) – the report that indicated the powerful World Bank had had to eat some its scathing words about the role of the state. Goes on a bit!
- The Retreat of the State; Susan Strange (1996) Susan Strange was one of the founders of International Political Economy – and, for me, talked the most sense about the contours of the modern state – identifying, for example, the importance of multi-national companies (including the global consultancies; the Mafia; and the technocrats of global institutions), She also authored Casino Capitalism (1986); States and Markets (1988) and, her last book, Mad Money (1998)
- The Sources of social power – vol I history from the beginning to 1760AD; Michael Mann (1986)
The first of what turned out to be a 4 volume study, reminding us that “the State” is a modern construct and only one of four types of power (political) – the other three being ideological, military and economic. Not an easy read...- The Sociology of the State; Bertrand Badie and Pierre Birnbaum (1983). A good non-Anglo-saxon view of the subject