Drawing the line

The scenes in New Orleans over the last week haven’t exactly been a great advertisement for government’s ability to fulfil the responsibilities it claims to undertake in return for the right to tax. But libertarianism’s also been having a hard time down there on the levees. When government broke, voluntarism and mutual aid didn’t step forward to fill the gap. Instead, gangs emerged to fill the power vacuum – a classic 4GW scenario, by the way. I’m sure there were innumerable acts of kindness and individual solidarity, but for the most part the “thousand points of light” turned out to be muzzle flashes.

And yet, this was an example of government failure at every level, from the Republican White House to the Democratic State House. Could you really say that Katrina’s aftermath justifies giving more powers to the old gang?

What seems to be lacking is a sense of institutional solidarity. For the past twenty five years, the dominant theory of government has been that the state is essentially parasitic rather than representative. It’s a haven for the lazy, the cynical, the indifferent, the bureaucratic, the unqualified and the meddlesome. Eventually this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the lazy, cynical, bureaucratic, meddlesome and unqualified are attracted to government. And since they exist and are tolerated, they also set an example within society at large. Add to that a society that valorises commercial transactions above all others and you have an environment in which the impulse towards voluntarism and mutual aid necessarily withers – precisely the reverse of what free market theories of social organisation predict.

You could see this going on in a smaller way in the persecution of the Hall family by animal rights activists. As well as targeting the family itself, the animal rights nutters picked off their suppliers and investors one by one. It targeted their local pub, their golf club, even their newsagent. Instead of being at the heart of a social network that protected its members, it seems that the halls were simply at the heart of a commercial network whose members protected themselves. It’s the logical outcome of the dominance of a line of thought that states that there is no such thing as society, just individual men and women and their families.

What does institutional solidarity look like? The following is from Simon Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War, citing Hannah Arendt on Danish resistance to the Nazis, which succeeded in saving all but fifty of Denmark’s 7800 Jews during World War 2:

…it seems the Danes were brave because their leaders were. The King made a public commitment to the Jews, Danish political leaders refused to take even the mildest measures against them, pastors read letters in church opposing their persecution, and so an atmosphere was created in which ambulance drivers and fishermen saved their lives.

The point is about leadership, but the leaders cited were leaders of institutions, and these institutions brought Danes together and helped give them the courage to act as individuals.

So how do we get there? You can’t just say we should have more faith in our actually existing political institutions. Personally I have no faith at all in ours. Right now, more government would just mean more bad government. One thing that may help is if we insist on a strict line being drawn between business and government. Lenin’s tomb has a couple of good posts here and here on how the pseudo-privatisation of disaster relief contributed to the whole mess in New Orleans. And here we learn that the head of FEMA brought to his position all the relevant expertise acquired as an attorney for the Arabian Horse Breeders Association – a job from which he was sacked for incompetence.

More generally, the privatisation of public services has done nothing to shrink the size of government. On the contrary, it has extended its reach. There’s now a whole penumbra of private sector government clients eager to take a crack at getting swag off the taxpayer on easy terms. At the same time it’s becoming hard to determine exactly what government is responsible for and therefore how its members should be punished for failing to live up to those responsibilities. It’s hard to establish just what the public sphere is in which people can act voluntarily. You may think that the government should have greater or lesser responsibilities. That’s the proper subject of political organisation and debate. But what it takes on it should take on openly, publicly and completely.

The events of last week demonstrated that we can’t afford the idea that there’s no such thing as good government. But as a first step towards getting it we need to define its responsibilities, to drag it into the light. That might encourage it to behave more responsibly. And if we feel that our formal institutions can be trusted, we may trust ourselves to create stronger informal, voluntary and mutualist networks.

  1. James F said:

    Very interesting post and something I’ve been pondering myself for a while, working as I do, for a company with a client list that is exclusively public sector.

    Clearly you’d expect me to protest that many companies working for government seek to deliver value for money. I’d also argue strongly that there’s an element of the public service ethic which has, in some cases, leached into the private sector and that many companies and individuals working indirectly for public money seek to deliver public benefit for its own sake, rather than solely because a job well done will lead to more work.

    I certainly don’t dispute, though, that there’s a lot of bad work done for public sector clients, through incompetence and sometimes even through design: why solve the problem at the first attempt when you can create work for your company and yourself for years to come?

    The main problem in my opinion though is the way in which government employs and manages private sector organisations. Firstly, expertise is purchased on a contract basis so that arses are covered; when problems emerge officers can point to decisions being shaped by the consultants’ advice. Secondly, projects are poorly specified with the client not really sure what precisely is required, as seems to happen time and again on large scale IT projects. Thirdly, politicians and senior officers don’t trust the advice or proposals offered by their staff, instead seeking outside validation from companies able to market ‘solutions’.

    I don’t know what the answer is but I wonder whether if departmental heads and other senior civil servants were employed on generous short-term rolling contracts we might start to see some improvement on the current situation. The brain drain from public to private sector might be reversed with private sector commercial savvy employed in the interests of the country (or county, or district) rather than in the interests of shareholders, perhaps leading to better management of public money when it’s spent on privately supplied goods and services. And if contracts genuinely were short-term we might start to see true accountability rather than the current position where a job in government is almost the last place where you can expect it to be a job for life.

  2. Stuart said:

    Hi there,
    What’s a 4GW scenario?

  3. Jamie K said:

    Fourth generation warfare. Classic “third generation” insurgencies (Algeria, South Vietnam) are about changing ownership of the state, either in the political or colonial sense. The occupying power – or the party occupying power – adopts counterinsurgency tactics designed in part to maintain its legitimacy through providing basic political goods – power, security, welfare, etc. 4GW adapts to this by attempting systematically undermining the ability to deliver these goods, thereby generating state failure. See:




  4. James F said:

    If my experimental link doesn’t work, would someone please tidy up after me? Thanks.

    Fourth Generation Warfare is connected to the idea that the state no longer holds a monopoly on armed violence – often used in connection with terrorism.

  5. Matt Daws said:

    With regards private companies doing “public” work: A thought which has occured to me is that “privatisation” seems to have been taken too far. The classical, simply minded idea of the “market” is that you have lots of companies competing to deliever the same product, and this keeps costs low and innovation high: essentially because if your product is crap and/or expensive, consumers will go elsewhere. Think cars, TVs, Stereos etc. However, in the Labour era of privatisation, we’ve seen large natural monopolies been privatised.

    I’m thinking of Capita as an example. It’s one big huge company that seems to have previously been a chunk of the Civil Service, and which, despite numerous documented examples of sheer incompetance, keeps winning contracts for various “admin” like roles (TV license, congestion charge, CRB etc.) It appears to keep winning such contracts because it has no real competition. The end result appears to be that we’ve made private a section of the government, which has resulted in huge profits, a modest pay cut of normal employees, and a complete lack of any democratic accountability.

    What’s really needed is lots of smaller companies competing for government contracts. We simply don’t have this, and I’ve no idea how this result could be achieved.

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