People Power: "Politics without romance" was how the extreme right-wing "public choice" theorist, James 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.
REGARDLESS of NZ First’s ultimate decision, Writ Day, 12 October 2017, was a day for celebration. The 2017 General Election, now completed, will, eventually, deliver a government which has been shaped by the will of the New Zealand people – in full accordance with democratic principle. The tragedies and injustices that impelled the electorate's judgement will carve-out for themselves a substantial and urgent claim upon the new ministry’s programme. The priorities of government will change, for the very simple reason that we, the people, 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 underway for the best part of thirty 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 only made sense 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 the 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 sub-optimal.
It was only after Buchanan’s death that researchers uncovered his life-long links to the most extreme anti-democratic 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 free-marketeers’ ears. Collective unaccountability and excess being infinitely preferable, as an example of public sector conduct, to collective responsiveness and restraint.
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 endeavors. 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.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 October 2017.