Thursday, 15 March 2012

Oireachtas Dysfunction on Economic Policy?

Paul Hunt (a regular commentator on PE) has written a lengthy analysis in the Dublin Review of Book linking the dysfunction of the Oireachtas with the woes of the Irish economy.

There is a lot to agree with in the article, such as his assertion that “open, transparent, adversarial disputation of public policy proposals based on facts, evidence and analysis is the most effective means of ensuring good governance”. However, some aspects of the analysis are tenuous.

The article ranges from a discussion of the economic history of the twentieth century to a comparison of the influence of different European powers over their respective governments. As result, the treatment is inevitably somewhat simplified in places but gives a relatively clear overall narrative from the author's perspective.

In the closing pages, the analysis veers dangerously close to cynicism, if not outright conspiracy theory. There is a lack of evidence supplied to justify writing off the entire policy making system as a monolithic industry using propaganda and spin to provide post hoc justifications for decisions that benefit vested interests and harm the public interest. It can feel like that sometimes, but it is an oversimplification and exaggeration.

While the essay is surprisingly tolerant of failures of investigative journalism, on the basis that the media is “probably insufficiently resourced and lacks the incentive”, there is a need for more nuances about why policy-making can be dysfunctional in Ireland. Failure by successive governments to invest in social scientific policy research is one component, as is a failure to develop career structures and human resources policies that would incentivise the kind of numerate, analytical skills required in a modern civil service.

There are a few specific points that I find particularly contentious.

The assertion that neo-liberalism was “theoretically sound” whereas Keynesianism was “naïve” and “beguiling” shows a certain bias. Different aspects of these theories have been both bolstered and undermined by a range of evidence at this stage, and both have major flaws.

Likewise, I cannot agree that the early Irish state “placed a premium on governance without effective scrutiny, restraint or accountability”. On the contrary, the stability of parliamentary democracy in Ireland – probably due to our geographical and cultural connections to stable regimes in the UK and USA – provided a forum where civil war enemies could hold each other to account for their use of state power and limit the abuse of national resources. Arguably, the Dáil worked much better to achieve these aims eighty years ago than it does today and I endorse the article's conclusion that it is now dominated by the Government.

Finally, I reject the assertion that “most voters are broadly content” with a weak Oireachtas. I do not believe that people are apathetic either. I think there is a great anger and frustration with the political system and the PR-driven nature of political communication in recent years. Participatory experiments like those done by Claiming Our Future and We The Citizens provide evidence to suggest that people are able to get their heads around tricky issues and would welcome much more frank, detailed and nuanced policy discussions by politicians.

There is one contradiction in the article, between the idealised – perhaps even naïve – depiction of the role of governments and parliament near the end, where it is claimed that they should always act in the public interest, versus the earlier analysis that interest groups “are behaving rationally” by each “pursuing their interests” using whatever “power and influence they can exercise”.

Much as I agree with the article that a much stronger and independent research and analytic capability should be made available to the Oireachtas, in reality democratic politics is largely an agreement to replace violent conflict with competition between different vested interests, with parties in Government constrained to spread just enough benefits around to satisfy their diverse voter bases or lose the next election.

Is this cynical in turn? I don't think so, because alongside the reality that politics is inevitably partisan, I believe that there are public servants and politicians on all sides who sincerely care about the public interest or 'common good' and try to arrive at balanced policy solutions. But there is a risk that even the best of them are lulled into a sense that the Oireachtas and Government are doing the best they can, in a technocratic way. Parliamentary activity - and policy making more generally - should not be seen as a merely technical activity, where the optimal solutions can arise from dispassionate analysis of facts and figures. On the contrary, values matter too and what policy is considered 'optimal' almost certainly depends on one's moral perspective.

I welcome the article's contribution to the public debate on political reform, but I believe that any drive for deep reform of the Oireachtas, including heightened scrutiny and holding of governments to account, must be fuelled by the knowledge that the costs and benefits of public policy decisions are not distributed equally. This sense of urgency and unfairness should remind those politicians who care about the public interest that their duty is to question and oppose bad policy, even if that means losing their salaries and their careers.


Paul Hunt said...

@Nat O'Connor,

Many thanks for taking the time and trouble to review and post on my DRB offering. It appears you are leveraging and critiquing it to advance your own platfrom. It doesn't really matter.

I doubt there will be much interest on this board. We couldn't have any troubling reflection on tightly held beliefs and prejudices, now could we?

Martin O'Dea said...

For the purpose of hopefully encouraging more constructive intellectual activity here - I am going to throw in my twopenny worth.

I think Paul that the starting point for a very large number of your comments here is that this site is a party to something you see as the root cause of an awful lot of Ireland's troubles, if I can paraphrase here this might be summarised as public sector, unionisation and interests that protect the inefficiencies within the public sector.
Perhaps also you see what many see as a failure of market economics as not a failure of the principles themselves so much as rather a misuse of the principles and those of more socialist leanings are using this as an opportunity to reinvent the stagnation of the seventies or the extremism of the 20 century main experiments in state control of production and consumption (which obviously many would argue was a misuse of principles in the extreme that was exploited by freer market proposers at the collapse of the iron curtain in precisely the way you now see occurring in reverse).

If I can then 1 points,
1. It seems that confrontation clouds analysis a lot of the time - and the need to be right(this, of course, we are all guilty of all of the time (and one of the best exercises to remedy is to make arguements typical of those you normally disagree with) we all need to hold in check self-persuasion))

I imagine there are some contributors who may exhibit some or all of the characteristic perspectives I have paraphrased here - though many seem to have distinctly different outlooks; this all then gives the impression of predictable responses from you repeating largely the points I put at the start here. Occasionally certainly the stance provides a useful counterpoint but often as I say it looks repetitive and only loosely connected to the topics under consideration

2. There has never been a truly planned economy (certainly USSR had NEP almost immediately post revolution)
There certainly has never been a free market - bear in mind that that would include absolutely no taxation no fire services or ambulances (most likely - non-viable to charge for something potentially never used) certainly no public provision of services including governance, unless that too were provided by profit making private firm.
My point then is this is not really an ideological debate in the purest sense.
All of us wish for efficient and excellent public services; all of us also want corporate entities that are regulated to a point where they cannot cause major societal harm. We want comfort, nourishment, entertainment, freedom and protection and we want to contribute to the creation and maintenance of societal structures that will best allow these.

The quest then is better governance, better useful regulation, public involvement where it is the more sensible option for all of society and private involvement for the same reason. A lack of non-thinking entrenchment on both sides and a willingness to look at each case in point on an individual basis with continuous improvement as opposed to being proven ideologically aligned as the continuing motive would be most desirable

Nat O`Connor said...

@ Paul Hunt

"It appears you are leveraging and critiquing it to advance your own platform."

Not in the least. My intent was "open, transparent, adversarial disputation of public policy proposals based on facts, evidence and analysis"...

Paul Hunt said...

No intent to encourage 'entrenchment'. I'm actually trying to get people out of the trenchs. The fundamental problem is that, while the vast majority of citizens and residents in most EU economies eke out an existence below the median wage most of these seem to be divided electorally between the left and the right (with the latter currently securing a plurality in many countries) and with a relatively small number as median voters in the centre.

Those among this large mass of the electorates who lean to the right were/are attracted by the bogus menu offered by the Neocons and their useful idiots and are repelled by the left’s protection of the ‘aristocrats of labour’ in its camp - many of whom have now have become more capitalist than the capitalists themselves. And those among this large mass that lean to the left appear to remain in thrall to out-dated ideological baggage and utopian, but unrealisable, visions.

Until this plurality of all electorates realise that they have a common enemy and common interests no progress will be achieved. es they're in.

It should be clear that, in the post-war years, life-enhancing progress and the removal of life-damaging contraints were achieved when the liberal-centre combined with the progressive/social democratic left. Ted Kennedy split US progressives from the LaFollette liberals when he contested the Democratic Party presidential candidacy in 1980. Around the same time the ‘Gang of Four’ deserted the UK Labour Party and, eventually, in Germany the FDP deserted the SDP. This shift may be observed in most established democracies and the liberal-centre and progressives/social democrats now indulge in mutual loathing, mistrust and animosity with the liberal-centre being repelled by the left and attracted by the lures and wiles of the Neocons.

Ireland, of course, ploughs its own lonely furrow, but the need to secure a re-alignment of the liberal-centre and the progressive-left becomes more pressing with every passing day. This is a recent attempt at making the case:

Paul Hunt said...

I see that my plea for constructive engagement between the liberal, porgressive centre and the progressive-left has evoked no response. Probably not surprising. It's far easier and more comforting to rant about the bogus bogeymen of 'neoliberalism' and 'free markets' and to maintain some sort of ideological purity.