By Nicole Morgan, CACOR member.
As my title suggests, I have some doubts about a current doctrinal theme, which governments in desperate financial straits are applying in the hope of pulling themselves back from incipient chaos. The notion that citizens be regarded and treated as clients or customers of government agencies may not be a panacea. On the other hand, governments clearly cannot maintain the inflated expectations of recent decades concerning absolute individual “rights” of citizens. I will suggest that it should be neither nor. My approach to this issue is the product of lengthy preparation and gestation, which I would like to expose for you as an introduction to the specifics of my research project.
My essential criticism of the citizen-client “solution” is that it addresses profound problems with superficial nostrums. I trace this weakness in policy and administration to the methodological predisposition to specialization, which has made us lose track of simple basic limitations and complex interrelations.
Consider only the failure to link economics with policy development and program administration:
- Politicians and program administrators acted as if there were no conflicts among individuals and groups over objectives and no limitations on resources. They treated the future as a credit card. The Welfare State was born out of these premises.
- Economics, in a post-Keynesian (and post-War II era of North American power and wealth) euphoria, degenerated into techniques for measuring growth in total spending capacity instead of confronting the mounting evidence from other disciplines that resources were shrinking. In other words, economists forgot the fundamental meaning of their discipline, which is to make choices within resources constraints. In their efforts to make resources go further, they implicitly assumed that “engineers” could create new resources, indefinitely. Some react with horror to evidence and arguments that human ability to consume ever greater income out of the earth and biosphere is in fact limited. Keynes himself knew better than this.
- In any case, the message that policy-makers should have digested from economics was missed . Neither political scientists nor economists bothered with “the transmission of this counsel through the process of political choice and public administration” . The latter obsessed itself with the nuts and bolts of its trade, specializing even more into specific “health” or “municipal” or “provincial” or “federal” administrations. As a result, little thought was given to the implications of downsizing, for example, on federalism, democracy, parliamentary system, social ethics, etc…
From my experience as a political philosopher, policy analyst and activist for sustainable economic development, it appears to me that the challenge is not being addressed:
- By governments. Media scrutiny and opportunism has made synthesis a virtual impossibility.
- By academia. A deep cultural suspicion towards generalists has entrenched self-contained territories. A wave of budget cuts will likely reinforce these positions;
- By the private sector all too eager to jump on the bandwagon of privatization and market theory without much thought about the political, social and ethical implications of their choice.
This void has produced the kind of expectations which characterize intellectual exhaustion: a volatile electorate and on the other side of the coin a search for “saviours”: i.e. “leaders” and “managers”. The amount of literature published each year in North America about the art of leadership and managing is simply staggering and should be regarded, not as a mark of dynamism, but as an indicator of the impoverishment of an old paradigm. Worse, the hysteria of the search itself makes us devour our saviour as soon as one of our fragmented and contradictory demands is shattered. Incidentally, the same frantic search for a good “leader”, against the same background of lack of faith in governments, globalization and impending chaos, can be found at the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the Renaissance . I shall return to this later.
This quest reflected in the burgeoning literature of management is not completely unwarranted – I am publishing myself in that field – but I believe that the trees are hiding the forest. And although this is a commonplace metaphor, it has extra utility in our context. For we need to look at the forest as a fragile system, subject to human as well as natural limits. We must learn to link ECONOMICS, POLITICS, DEMOGRAPHICS, SOCIAL VALUES, POLICY ANALYSIS AND ADMINISTRATION within an interactive quasi organic system with limits and feedbacks loop.
This weltanschauung has coloured all my past research and is central to all my present work. It is at the core of a project that I am presently developing partly for the Canadian Centre for Management Development and which will, I hope, become a book.
In recent years, a considerable literature has been published on the alignment of the public sector with the “philosophy” of the private one. This is by no mean surprising. As the public sector ran out of money, its nemesis – the private sector – became the goal and the ultimate model. Its techniques, tools and vocabulary have little by little invaded the official, academic and fringe academic discourses. More precisely, Great Britain is redefining accountability of the public sector by emphasizing that citizens have a “right” to be treated as clients . Canada is copying hesitantly and the depth of the movement is difficult to assess: Is it a fad which will disappear in the cemetery of all buzz words, along with “leadership”, “empowerment”, “excellence”, and, a personal favorite, “horizontal organisation”?
Nor are the ramifications clear. If the trend is definitive, will it affect the delivery of services in the public sector? What might it mean in terms of strictly political processes such as policy making, tax collecting and law enforcing? Is it the onset of a megatrend which will little by little destroy institutions and nation states as predicted by Fukuyama in The End of History .
Confusion is warranted, for however practical and micro economically sound it may appear, the notion of citizen as client confuses two different concepts of man which are not compatible. That is easy for me to see, as a philosopher and surveyor of the evolution of ideas. When I then set the inconsistency of these two concepts beside some well-established principles accumulated in physical and biological sciences, I can only infer that both concepts are obsolete. The challenge to creativity and research is to devise new, more comprehensive concepts to cope with circumstances and worldviews markedly different from those appropriate to political theorists of two centuries ago, whose ideas we are still sifting as for gold.
In what follows I will first revisit the fundamental ideas on which modern nation states were built. I will then contrast them to postulates of the new citizen-as-client approach to governance. The third step will be to point out that constant mixing of the two models, by practitioners not cognizant of their incompatibility, has not only helped create our current unhappy circumstances but is also responsible for our confusion over what to do about them. Finally, I shall outline the nature and scope of research, which I believe necessary to address the full range of challenges to public policy and administration.
- CITIZEN-KINGS. (Citizen sovereignty, i.e. democracy)
The concept of citizen was born with the modern state, whose postulates it shares. The precise moment is not known but that is not essential for our discussion. What were these postulates?
- The fundamental premise was that Man and Woman are rational animals, which means by implication that all men and women are equal in this shared element of their nature. (Do you really believe that male philosophers–or any other males of the time, believed this?)
- A second fundamental premise is that truth is unitary.
- Putting these two together, they imply that rational minds will converge on an understanding of the common good. Furthermore, a rational mind will perceive that the common good serves self interest and that it is therefore personally rewarding to conform the self to common will. This is the basis for a democratic social compact.
- Reason is the sole mode of apprehending the world. Traditions are regarded as a lower form of knowledge and behaviour. (The motto “Reason Before Passion” embroidered on a quilt hung in the Pierre Trudeau Prime Ministerial residence was much more than a mere decoration. The colourful thread traces a deep philosophical statement, which encapsulates 400 years of a collective dream). It follows that the goal of the state should be to replace traditional behaviours, regarded as arbitrary and hierarchical, by rational policies, which are equalitarian by implication.
- In such a rational state, the progress of knowledge and technique will provide solutions to economic and political challenges.
- To achieve the rational state, reason must be dispensed by governmental technocrats in the interest of social, economic and political progress. Taxes finance reason. If reason does not deliver, it means that more taxes must be collected to finance more research and more technocrats.
By strict construction from these postulates, the role of the modern state should be limited to providing institutions of morality, which incessantly recreate and administer (the word is important) the social contract in the name of an ethical, universal and interchangeable abstraction: the citizen. The postulates further imply that government agencies are remote from considerations such as profit (including any self-interested behaviour on the part of those who inhabit them). To be “separate” and “absolute” implies monopolistic; their costs are covered from a common public purse with no specific attribution. The common good is not divisible; taxes are not specific prices paid for identifiable services; tax revenues are a common pool.
As we know, the range of services provided to citizens multiplied remarkably, fuelled by increased financial resources and political promises. There was, for a time, a “rising tide, which lifts all boats,” but tides also fall. Tax-payer revolt in debt-ridden states made it obvious that something had gone wrong . This has been well documented and I shall not belabour it. To make matters even worse, reaching for technological powers which eluded our grasp has been our excuse for destroying the physis – nature – and the phronesis – which we may interpret as ancestral knowledge and point to destruction of the Inuits as illustration.
As the dream crumbled, there was a frantic search for the culprit. Rationality optimists (liberal intellectuals) assumed that administration of the “common will” must be defective and asked for more control (the Auditor General ). Rationality skeptics ((in the tradition of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman)) repeated conservative warnings about inherent dangers in the concept of the welfare state. (An intermediate stage was the “discovery” of self-interested behavior inside bureaucratic organizations–Downs, Tulloch, Niskanen, etc. This is a key bridge between the two sets of postulates.) A timid experiment with cost-recovery and “user-fees” marked the onset of the demise of the “citizen-king”, who was soon to be replaced, in political theory, by the “client-king”.
- CLIENT-KINGS (Consumer Sovereignty)
The ideology of the client king is a mixture of poorly understood precepts from Thomas Hobbes, Charles Darwin and Adam Smith . Derived from public choice theory (a.k.a. social choice theory or rational choice theory), it has produced, especially on this side of the Atlantic, a vast literature on the economics of organization, agency theory and transaction-cost analysis .
The postulates of the client king system are a radical departure from those of the citizen king:
- The basic postulate of public choice is that ” […] man is an egoistic, rational, utility maximizer” .
Note that in this model all humans are still equal in the sense of shared rationality. The difference here lies in the emphasis on egoism, which in the earlier model was suppressed (repressed, controlled, inhibited?) by a rational understanding that the good is inevitably common. In the public or rational choice models (degenerate applications of economic theory) individuals are assumed to be motivated solely by self-interest, which is most conveniently expressed through the accumulation and expenditure of money. There is a kind of Hobbesian equality here, which resides in the universality of egoistic intent, but no explanation or mechanism for converting self-interested rationality into the common good.
- It is not intellectually respectable, in the 1990s, to postulate baldly that truth is unitary. (Although it may be for some statements, e.g. in geometry and politics.)
- To achieve convergence on the common good in the new model, therefore, some means other than suppression of egoism in the common and shared interest must be postulated. Various terms for this include “automatic harmony of interests” and “invisible hand” but they come down ultimately to a belief in magic–God, Santa Claus, Fairy Godmother as you wish. Not a rigorous, rational or scientific model. (That is the meaning of statements such as these: It is assumed that individuals behave in order to maximize their individual welfare “in the light of the information they possess”. Equal striving for self-interest makes individual and collective interests congruent for their self-interests will eventually balance one another. Structured by intrinsic economic laws (the invisible hand), exchanges follow patterns of their own and “everything being equal individuals’ self-interests balance themselves”. )
Political economists (who renamed their subject as “welfare economics” after the failures of laissez-faire early in this century) worked diligently to find operational definitions of the common good, but eventually gave up in despair by the 1960s. One of the final nails in its coffin was the proof by Kenneth Arrow that individual preference functions cannot be aggregated into a social welfare function (the Impossibility Theorem which bears his name). By this time, other economists, working on various aspects of government enterprises and bureaux, had extended tools of market analysis into those territories, illegitimately–natural resource economics being one primary example. The public choice literature emerged in part from this tradition, and in part from the conservative political economy of the Austrians and M. Friedman. The precise genealogy of the public choice literature needs to be traced, and its premises examined very carefully. It is important for you (Nicole) to know that one of their methodological papers asserts that the realism of assumptions is not important.
- Given the premise that God will assure a happy outcome from throwing open the floodgates of self-interest, the goal of the state (government) is to maximize income vis-à-vis other nations (not perfectly clear; this is mercantilism) by cooperating with the fittest enterprises to remove obstacles (i.e. regulations), limit the discretionary power of politicians, reduce public monopolies to a minimum. Ironically, however, globalization is an implication of this opportunistic drive, at the expense, inter alia, of the nation-state. (J. Culbertson). The meaning of this drive for individual self-interest is the disintegration of the nation-state. (Tribal cultures love this idea. It was promoted vigorously by certain elements in the Mormon Church, including the departments of philosophy and religion at the university.)
- The administration of citizens’ entitlements must be efficient (in terms of cost/benefits or recovery) and therefore must follow most of the principles, vocabulary, and techniques of the private sector. For example, education and health-care should be privatized or contracted out to private sector suppliers. Rarely does transaction-cost analysis find that a tax-supported bureau is more efficient than a purely commercial version for providing the same function. In other words, the state as a whole would be economically much healthier if it did not have to carry the weight of its futile efforts to solve Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. (Does this require too much of the reader’s understanding?)
- Citizens should not be entitled to what the public purse cannot finance. Survival in terms of wealth and the competitive edge overrides compassion and protection of the unfit. In that perspective, taxes should only finance the strongest institutions. Institutions (departments, hospitals, universities) must be accountable on an “individual” basis, allowing the best to thrive and the unfit to disappear.
- In their role as taxpayers, citizens should be treated as customers of publicly supported institutions. Breaking up the monopoly of the latter is a way to ensure the quality of the service to the client.
- And in their roles as voters, citizens are viewed as customers of the political arm, which uses the marketing techniques of the private sector in the name of eliciting the “right” response from citizens. What sells beer can sell a politician. Or more elegantly, to use the words of Yaron Ezrahi, we have come to an age of “aesthetic politics” in which the dialectic of the market and the “choice” of the clientele cannot be wrong.
In a complete reversal of the previous paradigm (when the future justified the present) the present now justifies the future.
Also what Reason could not achieve according to the Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem (the impossibility of aggregating individual preferences to some general social welfare function), passions could.
- A NATION OF KINGS.
Like that of the citizen-king, the client king approach is already showing its obvious limitations at theoretical and practical levels.
At a theoretical level:
- The client king approach is unable to address issues such as environmental problems, which are external to markets. Although environmental problems can no longer be hidden or dismissed as trivial, they are easily shunted aside in political priority when unemployment and disappearance of factories put immediate survival at stake. (Globe and Mail reported on 2/19/93 that the federal government has asked Len Good to identify all environmental regulations, which might put Canadian competitiveness at risk.)
- It is incompatible with municipal infrastructure projects which require long-term collective financing. To cite a near-by and current example, the urban core of Montreal is crumbling for lack of maintenance and repair. Astronomical estimates of the cost of rebuilding it are fuelling a migration to the suburbs. This is drawing public spending and tax revenues toward highways and suburban infrastructure, exacerbating the decay of the urban centre.
- It assumes everyone participates equally in public and relevant information begs the question of whether information is in fact available and implicitly denies the dialectic of power, which inevitably manipulates information. Thus, the client-king notion unconsciously (ignorantly?) repeats the assumptions of anarchist theory. The denial of power is evident in studies undertaken by the federal public service and its propaganda pamphlets. These protect the inner power of the bureaucracy with buzzwords such as “empowerment”, “horizontal organization” and “total access to information”.
- At a political level the client king proves versatile and demanding, always asking for new “products” and behaving as the arbitrary absolute sovereign, which the French Revolution tried to eliminate. Without a common goal imposed in the name of a larger whole, client kings cluster into smaller but well organized “tribes” of ethnic or single interest groups fighting with one another. In that sense we can predict a total failure of the politics of multiculturalism, which is a brain child (Pierre Eliot Trudeau forgive me!) of the social choice theory.
At a more practical level, the transition from one ideology to the other is difficult and even dangerous (because it is actually impossible). By trying to appeal first to clients and then to citizens on the basis of ad hoc opportunism, Canadian governments have at times left everyone in the state of confusion which expressed itself in the recent constitutional referendum.
Let me give you some examples:
- In the cod fishing dilemma, the federal government expressed the long term common interest in protecting the fishery (as defined by the experts), but it bowed to the pressing short-term demands of a special interest group (the fishermen). It might be argued that governments always enunciate long term grandiose visions but act on many narrowly based objectives. That is true, but when were governments of the past so frequently exposed as “devious”, so openly trapped in “lying” and “deceit”?
- Another kind of difficulty is observable in non-performance on promises to redress inequalities which were inferable from the “citizen king” approach. When the “client king” approach is imposed in times of fiscal restraint such promises are unworkable. The Ontario government is trapped in this dialectic and as a result is losing on all fronts.
- The privatization which is being pushed in the name of the client king approach has retained many of the strings of the older ideology. Governments keep on subsidizing heavily the private sector in the name of equilibrium and centralized common good. This is keeping many so called private entreprises (farmers, industrials) on a phantom pay roll which does not fit in a true market economy. This can be seen very clearly in the case of contracting out, the volume of which has increased tenfold in the name of efficiency while bureaucracy was downsized. In some cases, savings have been substantial but in others, not documented by any “watch dog”, payments from the public purse have simply been displaced from a powerful group (the bureaucrats) to another powerful one (the contractors) with no savings and often an if not increase in costs.
- The federal government has borrowed the British idea of “executive agencies”, named here “special operating agencies” which are based essentially on a client-service approach, but it has maintained the bureaucratic control of another era, making it unworkable.
- And last but not least, the opening up of Canadian borders to intense foreign competition makes the very idea of nation-state irrelevant. It demonstrates that if there is any congruence between individual self-interest and the interest of the state, such a state is not anymore the nation-state but the global one, the “Border less World” describe by Keniche Ohmae.
One would wish that these examples are just the unavoidable hiccups of a transitory stage and which will not, in the long run, jeopardize the march of progress as predicted in Reinventing the State.
- LIMITING THE POWER OF THE KINGS
I do not think so. Why?
- First I think that we do not invent much anymore. The issue of self-interest and common will is by no means new, as attested by Professor John Gunn’s research. But we do play with the postulates, we try to reshape them in different combinations. That is the reason why I am a futurist who is such a committed historian. Not that I think that the history of political ideas and theories repeats itself and that I will find either cyclical patterns or a Hegelian march towards an Idea. No, what I am always looking for are the postulates which are at the foundations of our present and which in due times become obsolete when new challenges have to be addressed. The most useful experience for preparing this speech turns out to have been my dissertation on the political philosophy of the Renaissance, which I will be defending in 9 days.
- When we toy with the ideas of reinventing the state, we do not address the premises themselves but their consequences. All system and ideology carry an internal logic and we certainly would not be here today if we did not believe in it at least partially. The theories of chaos are a more complicated logic – not an absence of logos.
- Among the unexplained premises, none is more important than the “possessive individual” or “utopian individual” which both the “citizen king” and the “client king” assume implicitly. The concept was born in the sixteenth century, out of an extraordinary alchemistry of postulates defining man with borrowings from Christian, Platonician and epicurean philosophies. But as we have discovered that the ion is not the first entity existing in itself and for itself, so are we also discovering the urge of atoms to form structures, and as we are now conscious on the interrelation of man and nature, we may have to rediscover that politics is natural to man and is also irremovable as Aristotle pointed out some 2500 years ago. We may at one point accept that the individual we want so much to please, not only does not exist but is dangerous to its own existence in the sense that it leads to entropy.
- Mankind cannot credibly be defined as egoistic. Ethological research has demonstrated that mammals are organized (neurologically and hormonally) into hierarchies and systems of help and protection. Extreme egoism is also psychoanalytic nonsense. The persistence of this theme therefore shows more the lack of general education among practitioners than a firm demonstration of the theory.
- Any society will have politics. “Man is neither so base as to be incapable of governing his affairs nor so perfect that he can create a perfect order in which politics would be unnecessary.” New research and developments in ethnology may link this disposition to already established patterns of organizations within mammals or we may find explanations in the recent research in “complexity”. If I may say so, it may be enlightening but it does not matter providing we recognize that what was called sociability precedes the individual and more is the condition to the very survival of the individual as such. Collective rights as limitations of individual rights are going to become a necessity. And we might as well use reason to design them for if we do not, unattended overpopulation and despair over the endless needs of individuals will lead us to a violent resurgence of fundamentalist order. History repeats itself on this point, for fundamentalism, that is strict order allowing no individual choices, always rises in times of chaos.
- The reintegration of individuals within political limitations and responsibilities and within the ecological realm must go along with redefinition of space and time. For the limitation of the open frontier closes the hope that more can be taken from nature in order to justify one’s action in the future. In that respect economics will have to go back to its roots that are making choice within limited resources. In that respect globalization should not be regarded as an economic venture but as a political venture of humanity to address (as a unity) the new but politically pressing challenge of shrinking natural resources and potential eruption of violence – organized and disorganized – in an overcrowded world.
In brief the power of the kings must be limited.
This of course raises the question by whom, and I am not going to even try to answer to this question today. I just wanted to give you a broad idea of what the spectrum of my theoretical research and I am perfectly aware of the difficulties of its practical implications, let alone the difficulties of the theory itself. I am trying to multiply myself by attending conferences on broad themes (like the one in Whistler this summer on “Environment, population and religion”) but also on experiences in prioritizing, conscience raising of managing limited resources, education of “citizens”, development of new epistemological tools, and reforms of the constitutional and legal systems. Needless to say, I am not alone in that search, and I will not alone, produce the answer to a challenge which I regard as non academic but urgently practical. I wish though that academia will allow me to establish some grounds and work on another basis on a life-time project which has is the living proof that man – or perhaps is it woman – do not work solely in their self immediate interest.