Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Max Weber, bureaucracy and PFI

A key theme that runs through the work of Max Weber is the idea that the means to a given end can start off being rational but become irrational when those means become an end in themselves. This was true, for example, in the Protestant Ethic Thesis, which argued that the pursuit of a given end - in this case salvation (or to be more accurate - the need to certificate one's salvation) - gave rise to a peculiar phenomenon, the idea work per se as a virtue. Once disconnected from the end, one is left, he said, with the idea of work as a "calling" which "prowls around in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs". The key point is that this "inner-worldly" and ascetic attitude to work is now completely irrational from the point of individual utility.

The same concept runs through his theory of bureaucracy : this form of administration was more efficient than it's predecessors because it is more "rational" in that tasks are divided in a hierarchal chain of command; access to posts based on legal-rational certification etc. But problems arise when, as with the notion of work as a calling, the means become ends in themselves. The net effect for Weber, is that in the modern industrialists world, we inexorably move towards imprisonment in an "iron cage" of bureaucracy. Weber - gloomy chap that he was - tended to be longer on diagnosis rather than cure but in as far as he offered one, he favoured a society where charismatic individuals are given the liberty to hold back the forces of routinization that all forms of administration tend to succumb to. In the economic sphere, these "charismatics" are entrepreneurs and this is why he favoured free-markets, rather than economic planning because the latter would, in the long-run, simply lead to more bureaucracy.

From this, one could make the obvious point that, in education, we arrived at the point where the pursuit of means (e.g. assessment) has become irrational years ago - and I think anyone working in the public sector would probably agree. Rather, what I've been thinking lately is that while Weber was probably right about the Soviet model, he was wrong about free-markets because he couldn't have seen the way in which the marketization of our public services has succeeded in creating more bureaucracy. I would argue that this isn't the product of incompetence or poor planning but is instead the inevitable result of creating a market where none existed.

While there is obviously disagreement about the role of the state amongst economists, practically all agree that there is a need for state-intervention in cases of "market failure". This concept holds that there are certain public goods that would never arise out of the interaction of rational, self-interested individuals in the market place. I won't bore you with examples; suffice to say Thatcher's favourite Scottish economist Adam Smith considered mass education to fall into that category. Now, it's not that Mrs. Thatcher and her successors didn't accept this exactly - but they seem to think that these "public goods" benefit from the bracing winds of market competition. I think this - apart from its other effects - does not enhance "efficiency" but does, in fact, actually create more bureaucracy for the following reasons. Outscoring services, such as catering, maintenance, building, etc. means competition - which is supposed to drive down costs, thereby producing more efficiency, right? Except it's wrong. Anyone who surveys the paperwork they have at home will notice that probably at least 90% of this has to do with economic transactions; bank statements, P60s, insurance documents, registration documents for cars to prove you own it etc. The same principles apply to institutions : all these contracts that have risen out creating a market where there wasn't one produces a whole extra layer of paperwork - and paperwork that has to be managed. In this way, I'm arguing, marketization becomes self-defeating by the very same criterion by which it is advocated.

And it doesn't stop there because we all know that, in the name of "accountability", everyone in employment - as well as doing the job - has to fill in numerous forms in which, basically, you have to say what you're going to do, do it, and then write down what you've just done. If the institution you work for is really sad, at some point you'll have filled in a box entitled "what did you learn?", to which you might be tempted to respond : "something to do with the futility of my existence", or something. And then all this paperwork has to be managed and monitored by some hapless line manager.

In summary : Max Weber - smart guy but didn't reckon on vapid, low-grade management-speak taking over the world, did he?

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Labour's Election Prospects

In last Sunday's Observer, Nick Cohen challenges the conventional wisdom that the Conservatives, on present trajectory, haven't a prayer of winning the next election - assumed to be held at some point in the spring of 2005.

Cohen argues that the "anti-Tory coalition is falling apart", by which he means that the Iraq war has divided the centre-left with the Lib Dems nominally opposed to the foreign policy direction of the Blair government. He makes the point that, whereas in 1997 and 2001 Labour supporters were prepared to vote Lib Dem to defeat the Tories, this won't hold the other way: anti-war Liberals won't be prepared to reciprocate this time round.

He also argues that the Tories are in better shape than they seem (or as he puts it: "they aren't as "ugly, boring or stupid as they look"). To support this he points to the fact that they're more united and mobilised behind issues such as Europe, fox-hunting and asylum than they were in previous elections; he also notes the strange trend - found in at least the last four or five elections - for pollsters to consistently underestimate the level of Tory support in the country.

He then - before pointing to evidence that Gordon Brown would be more popular with the electorate - re-inforces the point that the "luvvies-for-Labour" phenomenon that we saw in the last two elections is likely to be absent this time.

Now, while being mindful that nothing is certain in politics (events, dear boy, events...), and being aware it might just be wishful thinking on my part, twenty quid says Nick Cohen is wrong for the following reasons:

Cohen refers to an "anti-Tory" coalition - but one could just as easily speak of an anti-Labour coalition and this is surely a more disparate and divided group? The Tories - having supported the war have attempted to back-track, with Michael Howard quoted as saying "if I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have voted for the war". This, it should go without saying, is hardly a coherent position - given that the Tories only know what they know now because of the invasion of Iraq. But the most important point here is that it isn't just me that thinks so: the story of the by-elections so far is not so much why is the Governenment doing badly but why aren't the Tories doing better? To form a government at the next election, the Tories really should be able to capitalise on Labour's difficulties. But they haven't, which leaves the Liberals...

Personally, I don't think the Lib Dems have a coherent position on the war either (they opposed it on the principle of UN-based legalism, which is fair enough - except they supported the Kosovo campaign, which didn't have UN cover either) but unlike with the Tories, it apparently is only me that thinks so; they have, without question, benefited electorally from their opposition to the war. However, there is good reason to think that this will not translate into their most ardently wished-for fantasy: to replace the Tories as the main opposition. For one thing, the Liberals can't quite decide whether they are a party of the centre-left of centre-right. This reflects the division within the party between social democrats and assorted hippies of various kinds and libertarian free-marketeers. To overcome this ambiguity, the Libs are fond of saying that they are beyond the conventional division between left and right in politics. But the left and right division does exist - and simply pretending that it doesn't isn't going to make it go away.

The other problem with Cohen's analysis is that it fails to take account of how voting preferences tend to change in the run-up to elections: whilst in mid-term, people tend to think in terms of "us", i.e. the "people" - and "them", i.e. "the government"; whereas when campaigning begins in earnest, the electorate see the parties much more in terms of representing a choice. In previous elections, this usually has translated into more support for the incumbents as people begin to think about the alternatives more.

Finally, on this point, I would argue that Cohen is over-estimated the impact of Iraq on the electorate. He has personal reasons for doing so, being one of the few left-wingers to give strong support for regime-change. But he should realise that foreign policy falls way down on the list of voters' priorities - behind the economy, crime, health-care and education, even in such a divisive war as this one has been.

And it is this understanding that makes me think he's wrong about the Tories as well; they may well be united on the issues of Europe and asylum (on the former, I'd disagree anyway) but the hapless Mr. Hague discovered that this is not enough to win the electorate over. It's doubly problematic for the Tories because it's not that people don't agree with the Tories on this issue; all the polls suggest they do - it's just that these issues aren't nearly as important as taxes, the economy, health and education: on all of these, Labour is ahead.

My money's still on a Labour victory, with a reduced majority. The basis of my argument is that people, if anything, have under-estimated the depths to which Tory fortunes have sunk. They have an ageing membership; their by-election results have been poor; they are still divided on Europe (this, combined with the percieved threat from Ukip, may push them into banging on about an issue that most voters don't really care about); and - above all - they have never regained their reputation for economic competence since the ERM debacle. Who was it that said: "it's the economy, stupid"?

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