I have a bit of a bugbear. In a sense, it could be considered a nuanced thing, but at the same time it is crucial to understand the issue if we are to properly evaluate our political decisions. It has relevance at all scales, from over-arching ideologies to minutiae of enacting policy.
The itch I have is this: when we hold a position – be it religious, political or economic – it is important to remember that how we implement said stance is often more important than the particular position itself. You may be thinking to yourselves, “What is he on about? Surely, whether I am a liberal/conservative/Christian/Muslim is more important than how I am a liberal/conservative/Christian/Muslim?”. The same argument could be made for economic theories and policies. I would assert that, in most cases, this is not the case.
So why do I say this? The simple answer is that what really matters are results. Do things actually get better? In most cases, it is possible to objectively evaluate whether matters have improved or not (doing this correctly is a whole different barrel of frogs, however). The most obvious way to illustrate this is in politics. One can look at the Labour dominated decades of 20th century Great Britain and come to the conclusion that it was the ultimate failure of those socialist policies that led to the rise of Thatcherism, free-market capitalism and New (i.e. not-so-socialist) Labour. The same could be said of the civil rights crises and liberalism in 1970s United States leading to the Reagan era and subsequent free-market neo-con domination.
But was it the liberal and socialist ideals themselves which failed? By any objective analysis of civil liberties, quality of life and income inequality, it would seem that things did indeed get better, despite major crises occurring regularly in both western Europe and the USA. In Britain, at any rate, complacency, inefficiency and bloated bureaucracy seemed to be the defining factors that led the Overton window to swing from the left towards the right. In the US, the desire to implement greater civil liberties without a coherent method of doing so in a federation of states has oft been blamed for the ‘disintegration’ of the liberal dream. The current rightwards political shift in the USA and economic shift in Europe and the US can be seen as a reaction to the perceived failure of the socialist/liberal implementation of policy as opposed to a reaction against the ideals themselves – indeed when you look at the polls, the USA is still a deeply left-leaning nation. This is a shift that has been in occurrence for 30 years now.
In much the same way, we are now seeing a popular (if, sadly, not political) shift away from the wholesale blind faith in the current form of the globalised free market. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s has seen the people lose faith in an economic model that was once seen as a virtual tautology, self-evident.
But once again I ask, was it the concept of free-market capitalism itself that was at fault here? I think if you were to ask one Friedrich Hayek (and probably even Milton Friedman), he may well argue that the financial market system which has been constructed and called the free market, only very superficially resembles the rigorously defined conceptual system of economics that he developed in the early 20th century. A truly free market favours no-one by mere privilege, and yet the western economies have constructed it to specifically favour themselves. The World Bank and IMF bring countries into the ‘free-market’ fold by imposing policies that are anything but free and fair (inter alios Argentina) – indeed external imposition on markets is directly contrary to the notion of the free market. To paraphrase Orwell, all economies are equal, but some are more equal than others – namely those constructing the system who already had the capital. So, it could be argued, it is this version of the free market that is to blame not the concept itself.
I am not even about to launch into a spirited defence of free-market economics – I believe it to be an unproven system that, even if it did work, would take so long to reach dynamic equilibrium that it would be rendered pointless. My real point here is this: just as with the collapse of socialism across Europe and the swing to the political right in the US and the collapse of communism and a hundred other examples, the main problem has not often been the ideologies themselves (with some notable and obvious exceptions – fascism anyone?) but rather with their implementation.
Had the British designed a more sensible trade union system, more rigorously managed state industries and been less willing to subsidise unviable ones, could socialism have thrived for longer? Had the Americans dealt with the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s more consistently, might the backlash have been less severe? If the free market had been implemented in its original intended form, would we be in the never-ending recession of the day? Certainly one can see a course of action in each case which would have led to better outcomes.
Within individual policies, this principle holds too. Workfare is a case in point. Nobody in their right mind has a problem with contributing effort (i.e. work) for their own enrichment (in this case money). So the idea that moving people off benefits and into work is, on the face of it, perfectly reasonable. But a system which does that with an amoral corporate agenda supported by politicians looking to improve their statistics lends itself to profit and not employment. Had it been implemented with the aim of helping people to do what they were good at, then the people and the economy benefit – and Cait Reilly would have been left to do what she was already doing perfectly well. If the policy were executed with it’s stated aims respected instead of circumvented, then it would have stood a chance of producing the desired results.
There are a number of reasons why policy implementations wind up being self-defeating. Entrenched power structures, old bureaucracies and personal agendas are but a few of the myriad reasons. How do we overcome these failings? We only know of one, imperfect, way of which I am aware: proportional democracy. “But surely, we have one of those?” I hear you cry. For most of us across the world, and particularly those operating the Westminster system (that’s the vast majority of the developed world), this is just simply not the case – particularly in the USA. If you need to understand why our democracies are unfit for purpose, you can refer to earlier articles here and here on politicoid. A more direct proportional democracy should prevent the entrenchment of power, should discourage personal agendas and promote valued leadership – and any muppet can see that ain’t the case.
My father often quotes Winston Churchill when he said that democracy was a terrible system, until you considered the alternatives. Without a doubt, a more direct proportional democracy is by necessity imperfect: slow, bureaucratic and dependent upon an informed public (good luck with that). But it is the only means we know of to keep the power structures fluid, and if only we actually had it, the world may be a considerably different place. But then, I guess, it would depend on the implementation…