A John Heatly Reaction to Paul Von Ward's "Reclaiming Government by the People" (November 15, 2010)
Von Ward is, of course, right in his analysis. As Richard Nixon said "Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist."
But then it arguable that "Bureaucracy is not an obstacle to democracy but an inevitable complement to it." (Schumpeter). All rulers need bureaucrats to implement their decisions. And when the ruled are the rulers (in a democracy) the bureaucracy proliferates because all the interest groups need to be considered (whereas in a dictatorship only one decides.) Because any change will create losers as well as winners (and the losers have votes too) it's much easier just to add new programmes (create winners) than get rid of old ones (creating losers.)
Special interest groups are the bane of any society - but are an inevitable consequence of democracy. In the "old" days, if you wanted something, you bribed or flattered the King (or dictator or church or whatever.) Now you've got to get legislatures to give it to you. And what they care about is being elected. So you form an interest group and lobby (bribe) the legislators in the way they care about most - organisation and money to help them be elected.
The problem specifically in America is that money = success in getting elected. Or, more accurately, lack of money = certain failure to be elected. So groups with money will have influence as only politicians with money can get elected.
Whenever there's a war, government control (by the bureaucracy) grows because it has to control things to wage the war. In many western societies in previous eras (18th and 19th centuries in particular), once the war was over government control reduced back to (nearly but not quite) previous levels. But then, in those periods, government was of the people but not by the people - a few rich aristocrats ran everything so why did they need government - they controlled things anyway.
Since World War II, most western societies (more so in Europe, less so in America - but true even in America) have believed that social and economic ills can be cured by government action. These states all emerged from a war where government control was vital - and they were democracies. If the people were the government then surely it's a good thing that government control grows - so that the people can control the rich, the powerful and the special interests. The Depression of the 1930s was caused by private greed but cured by government action (and war). So more government = good - right?
So went the thinking - and it's lasted pretty much until now. But what the great crash of 2007/8 showed was that "big" government was now simply unaffordable. And that, far from controlling the special interests (bankers, speculators, etc.) it had become captured by them in virtually every western country where money-fueled electoral politics was the norm.
So questions have begun to be asked:
(1) In Europe for the first time there seems to be a genuine consensus that government has got too big (and expensive) and needs to be cut back both for cost reasons and because previous assumptions about the welfare state are being questioned as it is seen to breed a dependency culture. There is also anger at the extent to which the bureaucracy and government had been captured by vested interests ("the City" which is the financial elites of London.) This is not happening at the same pace everywhere but it is happening. In all European countries government is being cut back (in the UK because the new government genuinely believes it's the right thing to do, in other countries like France 'cos they can't afford it, in yet others like Greece 'cos they're bankrupt.)
(2) In the US there's long been a streak of populism that is instinctively anti-government about everything. This goes back to the reasons why America was created (to escape state control whether religious or royal.) There's also long been more of a "can-do" mentality (the limitless frontier, the American dream.) Since the founding fathers there's been a split in the American psyche between the Hamiltonians (an elected government represents all the people so must have power) and the Jeffersonians (government should do nothing unless specifically authorised to do so).
(3) At various times in America the Jeffersonian tendency breaks out (William Jennings Bryan, Barry Goldwater, etc.) in a great popular outburst - but the prevailing tendency since the Civil War (won by the "government rules" side) has been towards Hamilton. Not least because each war = more government (and America loves its military). Now we're seeing another outbreak of populism (Tea Party). Whether its effects will last or be transitory will be seen.
But the situation raises a few more interesting questions:
(a) Why is it the religious right in America that's always been behind populism when Christian values are supposed to be about looking after the poor? Or is American Christianity about "the devil take the hindmost?" (There are good theological reasons for this - witness Calvinist belief in predestination.)
(b) To what extent is the power of money in politics (lobbies = special interests) leading to increased government bureaucracy? (If you can "buy" the government to do what you want, then the more the better.) But it's these same people who preach against government (and fund Tea Parties. Odd.....)
(c) Is what we're seeing in America and Europe simply a function of the fact that 3 centuries of European and 2 centuries of American global power is now ending? In the 18th and 19th Centuries in England the passing of Rural England in the Industrial Revolution led to outbreaks of nostalgia and a desire to return to a (non-existent) Golden Age (the Romantic Poets, Luddites, etc.). In America, Bryan was about exactly the same thing (so was Goldwater.) As societies lose power and privilege nostalgia for a vanished Golden Age when everything was simpler and purer tends to take hold - and the loss is blamed on those currently in power, i.e. the government (something similar is happening in the Islamic world where state and economic failure leads to fundamentalist dreams of a "purer" medieval world.)
(d) And, are the "anti-government" folk at bottom democrats or fascists? The more the Tea Party talk about the Constitution and venerate the Founding Fathers the more I hear Thomas Jefferson: "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine." And it was FDR who said "liberty is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it comes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism - ownership of government by an individual, by a group," Is this what the Tea Party wants?
So while I agree with Von Ward about the problem, I'm less clear what his solution is. Words like "Local, Community, and Private Citizenry" sound fine but what do they mean in reality? How will "local communities" control Big Money? Or Big Oil? In the UK the slogan is "the Big Society" which seems to mean government doing less and people doing more (shades of JFK.) But what it actually means in practice is less clear.
One of Obama's best slogans was "Don't talk about less or more government, talk about government that works." Unfortunately that has got lost as the lunatics have taken over the asylum and all government is now being equated with death camps, promoting masturbation and, worst of all, "taking away my guns." But these sorts of lunacies too will pass- it'll be interesting to see how the Tories' "small government" policies actually work in practice in the UK and even more interesting to see how the Tea Party folks actually find the real world now that they're in Congress.
My prediction is that Obama will win in 2012 (if he re-discovers his balls) that government will, after a hiatus, continue to exercise more and more control as people discover that without it to control special interests these already elites will get even more power to line their own pockets. But how to stop those special interests (finance, developers, gun nuts, religious fascists, etc.) capturing government? That's the real question.
It was Churchill who said "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." And it was George Bernard Shaw who said "Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."
I'm afraid that with democracy comes legislative government and with that comes bureaucracy. Not ideal, just better than the alternative which could be summed up as "Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few." ********************************************************************************************************************************************* [John Heatly has never held a government position and has no personal vested interest in how it is described. By Cambridge University training and personal inclination he is an historian, giving him a long-term perspective on America's current situation and its root causes. John has spent 20 years in advertising that gave him unique insights into the inner working of multinational companies and their interactions with government in the UK. He has also be a consultant, an entrepreneur involved in start-ups, and a Trustee in several pension funds. This has given him a vantage point for insight into the ugly, selfish, and often incompetent side of modern finance, corporations. and government,
John confesses to have been a long-term Americanophile, with a fascination in US history and its various societies within the whole. He sees our nation as representing some of the more progressive traits in modern Western culture (as well as some of its excesses). As an "outsider," he expects some of his views (or expressions of them) may offend some of my readers, but hopes they will be seen as for what they are: The perspective of a friend who only wishes us well. He can be contacted by email at: email@example.com]