Monday 3 February 2014

Is "good government" possible?

Ronald Reagan once stated (actually I think he kept on saying it!) that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." It's a view that many people hold today. I have to say right from the start - it is not a view I share.

Yet we hear so much about cost overruns; corruption; blunders; if not sheer incompetence. It's not limited to a particular government; or even system of government - I subscribe to The Guardian (UK); Le Monde (France); New York Times (UK); and "European Voice" (EU). Very different systems are reported upon - but the stories are so familiar.

Is it a question of complexity? Our modern world is so complicated - that it may be impossible for any institutions to attempt to keep everything working at the same time. Some people argue that only unrestricted market forces can bring about the optimum results. Frankly, that seems to me to be complete rubbish. History is full of examples of the follies and disasters brought about by unregulated markets. If you want scandals, swindles; abuse of power - read any economic history. I remember reading Professor Galbraith's argument that modern economic history demonstrates a recurring cycle - scandal & crashes (from the South Sea Bubble to...applying his thesis - the Banking crisis of recent years), followed by government intervention to save the system and regulations to stop the same thing happening again - followed inevitably by demands for the relaxing of regulations - leading to new scandals and crashes. Public officials are (rightly) held to much higher ethical standards than business requires.

Certainly complexity is one of a (series) of problems - but can it explain the role of abuse of power and scandal?

I think that we have to accept the first part of Lord Acton's dictum that "POWER TENDS TO CORRUPT, absolute power corrupts absolutely." There are various ways that systems can seek to temper the downside of Human Nature.

Constitutional Law has its role to play. A constitution can set limits on power, and rules which invalidate actions which breach the Constitution. Most states have a single document which sets out the main rules. However that single document is not the complete statement of constitutional law. The US Constitution has been interpreted and applied by the Courts, particularly the US Supreme Court. Constitutional conventions can exist. Until Franklin Roosevelt ran for a third term it was a convention that Presidents served no more than two terms. He broke it, and a constitutional amendment was subsequently passed. Legal remedies may work (but may not be safe in the hands of clever lawyers), but sometimes other pressures encourage compliance. "Conventions" in the UK play this role - they are not legally enforceable, but constitutional actors regard themselves bound by the convention. They are effective when they mean that the cost of breaking the convention outweighs any short term advantage. The Queen could refuse to give the Royal Assent to a bill passed by Parliament (was she tempted when the Hunting Bill was passed?) - but the cost would be the loss of the unchallenged role that the Crown plays.

Ethics rules can play a role. While we might complain about our current politicians being a bunch of rogues - they are actually 'cleaner' than most generations in history. Many scandals of the last 40 years involve behaviour that, thanks to ethics rules, are forbidden - previously these practices were regarded as normal political behaviour.

"Accountability" is a requirement that can reduce scandal and show up incompetence. There is an important role for investigative committees - in Congress committees play an important role in questioning decisions; and requiring officials and others to justify their actions. Within constraints the Departmental Select Committees in the House of Commons can do the same. They are aided by professional support bodies - the GAO (Government Accountability Office) in the USA and the NAO (National Audit Office) in the UK.

In England MPs and Councillors can ask questions of officials carrying out policies; and the decision makers who have adopted policies - and demand answers. Sometimes the press can play a role in uncovering sharp practices and incompetence. There are also various organisations seeking to hold decision makers to account - such as the USA's Common Cause.

We don't live in a perfect world - and Human Nature can be deeply flawed - but in democracies - where power belongs to its citizens - we each have a responsibility (to ourselves and to others) to see that power is accountable to us.