Ex­pres­sion of demo­cratic in­ter­est

Waikato Times - - Comment & Opinion - CHRIS TROT­TER

Only by forc­ing the pub­lic sec­tor to be­come as vi­cious and un­ac­count­able as the pri­vate sec­tor could the dan­ger­ous ex­am­ple of col­lec­tive car­ing be negated.

Re­gard­less of NZ First’s de­ci­sion, this is a day for cel­e­bra­tion. The 2017 gen­eral elec­tion has de­liv­ered us a gov­ern­ment which has been shaped by the will of the New Zealand peo­ple – in ex­act ac­cor­dance with our demo­cratic prin­ci­ples. The tragedies and in­jus­tices that im­pelled our elec­toral judg­ment have carved out for them­selves a sub­stan­tial and ur­gent claim upon the new min­istry’s pro­gramme. The pri­or­i­ties of gov­ern­ment have changed, for the very sim­ple rea­son that we have changed them. Any politi­cian who be­lieves it pos­si­ble to sim­ply pick up where he or she left off be­fore the vot­ing started is in for a rude awak­en­ing.

Not that our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives need to be told this. Those who live and die by the demo­cratic sword re­quire no lessons in the keen­ness of its blade. Of much more con­cern to us should be the peo­ple in our com­mu­nity who wield del­e­gated author­ity. Those em­ploy­ees of cen­tral and lo­cal gov­ern­ment whose daily de­ci­sions in­flu­ence peo­ple’s lives so dra­mat­i­cally. The class of per­sons who used to be called ‘‘pub­lic ser­vants’’, but who are, in­creas­ingly, tak­ing on the ap­pear­ance of our mas­ters.

It’s a process which has been un­der way for the best part of 30 years – set in mo­tion, as you would ex­pect, by the rad­i­cal ‘‘re­forms’’ of the Roger­nomics era. The idea of pub­lic ser­vice was, of course, anath­ema to the devo­tees of the so-called ‘‘free’’ market. The ideas of the lat­ter made sense only if hu­man be­ings were driven en­tirely by self-in­ter­est. That thou­sands of peo­ple will­ingly, and for only mod­est fi­nan­cial re­ward, were daily de­vot­ing them­selves to the wel­fare of their fel­low cit­i­zens, flatly con­tra­dicted the free-market ide­ol­ogy of the ‘‘re­form­ers’’.

That these free-mar­ke­teers seized upon the ‘‘pub­lic choice’’ the­o­ries of Amer­i­can econ­o­mist James Buchanan is un­sur­pris­ing. A No­bel lau­re­ate, Buchanan was feted by the Right for his ‘‘in­sights’’ into the be­hav­iour of pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions. These he char­ac­terised as clas­si­cally self-in­ter­ested en­ti­ties, whose ac­tions, more of­ten than not, turned out to be eco­nom­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally sub­op­ti­mal.

It was only after Buchanan’s death that re­searchers un­cov­ered his life­long links to the most ex­treme an­tidemo­cratic el­e­ments of the Amer­i­can Right. Buchanan’s con­cern, like that of his wealthy back­ers, was that the stark con­trast be­tween pri­vate self­ish­ness and pub­lic al­tru­ism would, in the long term, prove po­lit­i­cally un­sus­tain­able. Only by forc­ing the pub­lic sec­tor to be­come as vi­cious and un­ac­count­able as the pri­vate sec­tor could the dan­ger­ous ex­am­ple of col­lec­tive car­ing be negated.

The re­cent furore about the level of re­mu­ner­a­tion paid to the up­per ech­e­lons of New Zealand’s largest lo­cal gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cra­cies points to the ‘‘suc­cess’’ of the pub­lic choice the­o­rist’s re­forms. The old lo­cal bu­reau­cra­cies, presided over by ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cers known, quaintly, as ‘‘town clerks’’, ex­erted min­i­mal pres­sure upon the pub­lic purse. The new bu­reau­cra­cies, how­ever, mod­elled as they are upon the ruth­less ra­pa­cious­ness of the pri­vate sec­tor, are presided over by CEOs who clearly draw their in­spi­ra­tion from the ob­scene bonuses paid out to their cor­po­rate coun­ter­parts. Such un­ac­count­able loot­ing of the pub­lic trea­sury is, of course, mu­sic to the freemar­ke­teers’ ears. Col­lec­tive un­ac­count­abil­ity and ex­cess be­ing in­fin­itely prefer­able to col­lec­tive re­spon­sive­ness and re­straint, as an ex­am­ple of pub­lic sec­tor con­duct.

If our new gov­ern­ment is se­ri­ous about want­ing to bring pub­lic spend­ing un­der con­trol, it could do a lot worse than to start by re­vers­ing the per­verse re­forms of Buchanan’s ‘‘pub­lic choice’’ dis­ci­ples. After all, if there is one group these free-market the­o­rists hate more than re­spon­si­ble and car­ing pub­lic ser­vants, it is re­spon­sive and car­ing politi­cians.

It is a mea­sure of the free-mar­ke­teers’ suc­cess in un­der­min­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of any­one claim­ing to serve the pub­lic good, that merely sug­gest­ing a politi­cian might be re­spon­sive and car­ing is enough to in­vite in­stant in­credulity and de­ri­sion.

Buchanan and his ilk’s hos­til­ity to democ­racy arises pre­cisely out of its abil­ity to cre­ate pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions ca­pa­ble of re­spond­ing pos­i­tively to the ex­pressed in­ter­ests of or­di­nary cit­i­zens. Democ­racy also makes it pos­si­ble for or­di­nary cit­i­zens to redirect eco­nomic ef­fort away from purely pri­vate pur­poses and to­wards more pub­licly ben­e­fi­cial en­deav­ours. In other words, the ex­pressed will of the peo­ple is able to over­ride the ‘‘logic’’ of the market.

‘‘Pol­i­tics with­out ro­mance’’ was how Buchanan de­scribed the sub­sti­tu­tion of market forces for democ­racy’s ‘‘ex­pres­sive in­ter­ests’’. If the 2017 elec­tion was about any­thing, it was about turn­ing that around.

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