Thursday, July 7, 2016

Public policy: discovery and bargaining or applied knowing?

Is public policy a discovery process which takes into consideration the diverse interests, experiences and perspectives of the political nation (however defined--in a democracy, that is supposed to be the entire citizenry) or is it an engineering problem, an application of applied knowing?

There is, of course, a lot of engineering at the implementation level of public policy. To take some obvious examples, such things as roads, bridges, dams, etc are engineering problems in their construction. But policy in general is full of aspects where technical knowledge is important. Which can easily encourage the belief that policy problems are engineering problems all the way up. But the further up the policy process such a claim is made, then the greater the claims of knowledge, understanding and normative authority one is making for the policy makers.

Conversely, the more sceptical one is about such claims, then the more comfortable one is with the notion that public policy is embedded--and rightfully embedded--in discovery and bargaining processes. Which encourages confidence in multiple levels of government, so that such discovery and bargaining processes can take place in varying jurisdictions among varying players.

The irony of opposition to federalism is that by implying one or more levels of government are redundant, one is making strong claims about the knowledge, understanding and normative authority of the remaining level(s) of government. The implicit notion is that there is a correct policy, which is easily discovered and reliably implemented.

Thus, scepticism about government and political processes encourages belief that there should be more levels of government, not less. (Unless one is so sceptical that one believes there should be none at all: but that entails elevated confidence in non-governmental mechanisms.)

Bargaining and confidence
The more confidence one has in people in general, the more one is likely to endorse broad consent and bargaining mechanisms. The more confidence one has in a specific group of people relative to the wider population, the less so.

The more belief on has in knowledge being dispersed, the stronger sense one is likely to have that policy has to be understood as a discovery process--remembering that social bargaining is itself a discovery process. Noting also that politics is not the only discovery process, nor the only general process for achieving social ends.

The more belief one has in the level of understanding of a specific group or a specific framework of ideas, the more belief one is likely to have that policy is a process of applied knowing which bargaining gets in the way of. In this conception, diversity of policy is simply multiplying error.

Intellectuals and centralised uniformity
It is hardly surprising that intellectuals in general have a tendency to see policy as applied knowing and be impatient with social bargaining and policy diversity. Their life and identity is bound up in their sense of being the people who know more than others, with a strong tendency to also flatter themselves as folk of superior virtue--including the notion that it is their greater knowledge which leads to their superior virtue.

The long arc of history is not flattering to such pretensions, but they are so natural to the work of intellectuals, and so inherently self-flattering, that they retain a perennial appeal. Flowing from these tendencies is their recurring tendency to sneer at the profit-seeking of commerce, so lacking in grand pretensions to virtue and with its lively ordinariness so failing to apply to whatever grand moral schema intellectuals dream up. The claimed grounds and content of virtue have varied enormously, as have the grand moral schemas; but the disparaging contempt for commerce is a hardy perennial across time and space.

The (very) long arc of history has tended to favour policy as discovery-and-bargaining processes, but the temptation to retreat into "but this time we just know!" is also a hardy perennial.

Economics and public policy
The development of economics has tended to point in both directions at once. Mainstream economics tends to be favourable to markets, including markets as discovery processes. But the sense of understanding how things work can lead to deprecating political bargaining as something that gets in the way of good (i.e. economically informed) policy.

An amazing amount of nonsense has been written by academics about "neoliberalism", typically because they never seriously interact with folk who might be in any way sympathetic to "neoliberalism". Neoliberalism has come to mean not much more than "anything vaguely market connected that has been bad since 1980".

If we define neoliberalism as (in the Western context) the application of mainstream economic policy so as to create a sustainable welfare state, then the neoliberal policy surge has, at times, been guilty of seeing political bargaining as "getting in the way". Of it providing an unhelpful obstruction to policy being just applied knowing. Not always--the Hawke Government, in particular, provided an excellent example of accepting that political bargaining was a necessary part of the process. Nevertheless, impatience with political bargaining has been something of a failing of the neoliberal push in policy.

Confusing projects
The polity which has done the most to give neoliberalism a bad name is the EU (European Union). Ironic, in a way, as its bureaucratic aggrandising is not what neoliberalism is supposed to be about. Still, creating a common market for the free flow of goods, services and people looks like a very neoliberal project. As does creating a common currency with a strongly anti-inflation central bank.

But looked at through the prism of political bargaining and policy as discovery process, and the European Union looks a lot less impressive--particularly compared to the European Economic Community (EEC) that proceeded it.

The EEC was a neoliberal project, and a very successful one. A particular virtue being the insistence that only democracies could join. The Common Agricultural Policy was regrettable: a form of political bargaining in a way, but one which seemed an iconic example of narrow, organised special interests triumphing over general interests. Nevertheless, the EEC had a deserved association with prosperity and international cooperation.

The EU, not so much. The EU has become a case study in policy over-reaching. Harmonising regulation has been an example of suppressing policy-as-discovery process and, at best, very narrow social bargaining. Worse, as the reach of the European Project has grown, it has had an increasingly invidious effect on policy making within the member states by becoming a means to avoid accountability for policy actions and consequences by muddying who is responsible for what and providing blaming cover for actions.

But the worst over-reaching has been in the Euro and the ECB (European Central Bank). The idea of the Euro was straightforward--a Deutsche Mark for everyone. Something with very strong appeal, particularly for those used to high inflation "soft" currencies.

The problem with the Euro is that it became a Deutsche Mark for everyone; the entire Eurozone had a monetary policy imposed on it that suited Germany first and others much less, with the greater the differences between a particular economy and the German one, the worst the consequences. The human costs of the Euro alone has made the EU a morally very dubious construction.

Between the costs of the Euro (including fiscal austerity, with the underlying problem being monetary austerity), the deep muddying of policy accountability, and the resulting adverse effects on the quality of policy and sense of popular control, the EU has managed to generate increasing levels of "angry votes", including increasingly nationalistic political movements. How much in any particular country is still mediated by local political circumstances and levels of economic stress, but the wider pattern is clear enough.


Problematising people
Which comes back to the original sin of the EU--the original misdiagnosing of the problem of European history. The origins of the EU were based on the premise that the deep problem of European history was nationalism. This is false: Europeans have never lacked reasons to kill each other.

The deep problem of European history has been unaccountable power. Whether it was dynastically-grounded regimes using the weapon of nationalism to fight off the spectre of democracy (and then being consumed by the total war they could then not stop and failed to survive) or dictators wielding totalitarian power in megacidal projects, nationalism was a tool, not a cause.

But to make nationalism the great problem of European history is also to make the people of Europe the problem of European history, not inadequately accountable elites, given that nationalism is a sentiment among people. And if popular sentiments are the key problem, they cannot be allowed to be let loose. Hence the elite-dominated European project conceived as a restraint on the deemed problematic peoples.

Well, how has that worked out for them?

The notion of the EEC--to entangle the people of Europe so deeply with each other, and anchored in a common prosperity, that war became inconceivable--was a noble one.

The notion of the EU--to use ever-greater-union as ever-more-constraint-on-local-democracy--was not. It became a project of policy as applied knowing and (at best) very narrow bargaining. Not a project of policy-as-discovery process and broad social bargaining.

Clearly, more and more people have felt left out, ignored or worse. Moreover, as the policy reach of the EU has exceeded its actual knowledge and effectiveness, while having an invidious effect on policy accountability, it has become a mechanism for making policy worse, not better. Moreover, seeing the peoples of Europe as the problem has blocked learning anything from the resulting angry votes: treating voting patterns not as discovery process, but as confirmation of deeply problematic (indeed, profoundly counter-productive) assumptions built into the European project and oh-so-flattering to European elites.

The lack of a European demos is, of course, an advantage to evading accountability. But the consequence of that is poorer policy and more political alienation.

Entangling the people of Europe with each other should have been seen as a way of making certain sorts of politics less appealing, as a constraint on power holders, and those aspiring to the same. Not as a way to "manage" identities.

The original underlying structure of the EEC was a fine idea. The EU built on top of it, not so much. If one sees only the first while refusing to confront the second, one is going to continue to misdiagnose what is going on.

No, the peoples of Europe are not the problem. They never have been. Those who have seen them as the problem, they are the problem. What they thought they knew, they so didn't. They urgently need to rediscover a sense of policy-as-discovery-process, one properly based in broad social bargaining, not in demonstrably overblown notions of applied knowing.


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

5 comments:

  1. Replace nationalism with Islamism, Europeans with Muslims, Europe with Islam and surely your point will still stand, no? Or is the "sentiment among people" only problematic when the "people" are Muslims?

    "The deep problem of European history has been unaccountable power. Whether it was dynastically-grounded regimes using the weapon of nationalism to fight off the spectre of democracy (and then being consumed by the total war they could then not stop and failed to survive) or dictators wielding totalitarian power in megacidal projects, nationalism was a tool, not a cause.

    But to make nationalism the great problem of European history is also to make the people of Europe the problem of European history, not inadequately accountable elites, given that nationalism is a sentiment among people. And if popular sentiments are the key problem, they cannot be allowed to be let loose. Hence the elite-dominated European project conceived as a restraint on the deemed problematic peoples."

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    Replies
    1. The analogy to Islamism is not nationalism, but Nazism or Leninism. It is a political ideology masquerading as a religious revival, most of whose victims are Muslim or people of Muslim heritage.
      Does Islam the religion have problematic things built into it? Yes, of course; particularly attitudes to women, queer folk, non believers. Not that it is the only religion in that situation, but it is (at least in its mainstream Sunni form), in our contemporary world, more likely to inspire people to act on those beliefs against others than other religions. But, again, most toxically through Islamism, a political ideology parading as a religious revival.
      And I am not a fan of nationalism: but the EU has done more than anything else in Europe to revive it. You do not compete against toxic ideas by treating people as the problem. As the EU is demonstrating.
      I would recommend listening to this 19 minute talk. http://tedxexeter.com/category/deeyah-khan/
      Or this one:
      http://www.ted.com/talks/karima_bennoune_the_side_of_terrorism_that_doesn_t_make_headlines

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    2. While I don't disagree with you on the problematic features of Islam, I'm not sure you can let nationalism off the hook, either (http://metro.co.uk/2016/06/29/first-well-get-the-poles-out-then-the-gays-chanted-in-covent-garden-5974863/). I mean, come on (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/11/george-saunders-goes-to-trump-rallies).

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    3. Identity politics have nasty effects: the delusion is to think it comes in "nice" forms. Humans are very good at coalition building and identifying group membership. That is something any politics or social ordering has to both build on and deal with.

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