The Great Gatsby government discourse — carelessness and its consequences

top hatsI’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about how we talk about government. So, spurred on in part by the truly appalling tone of discourse in the Republican Party’s nomination contest, I’ve decided to write a few United States-centric blog posts on the subject (though I’ll stay away entirely from chauvinistic slurs, or comments about ‘walls’ or ‘roads to serfdom’).

Somehow, in the area of governance, our usual ways of measuring (and honoring) human endeavor don’t seem to  apply. Ordinarily, working and playing in teams teaches us how to master the challenges of  co-operative, collective achievement — which can be way, way harder than striving alone. Governing is a quintessentially collective endeavor, especially in democracies.  Yet all too often  the discourse (and not only by nameless plutocrat presidential candidates…..)  is resonant  of   F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby:

They were careless people…..  They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

In a series of complementary blog posts — on Washington’s Metro (on this link)   on Obamacare (on this link);, and on South Africa’s public sector (available here) — I explore some consequences of our carelessness in the way we speak about the public sector.  Here I focus on the underlying logic of the conversation. A good place to begin is with the analysis of institutions.

The great institutional economist, Douglass North, defined institutions formally as “humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction”. (‘Rules of the game’ is his classic, informal definition.) Another Nobel-prize-winning economist, Oliver Williamson, built on North’s definition. “Governance”, Williamson suggested, “is an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains”.   Crafting governance arrangements for the public sector is hard – much harder, Williamson emphasizes, than governing a private firm. Yet, somehow, seduced by high-sounding bromides, we  trivialize the challenge. We gloss over the complexities, imply that what is extraordinarily difficult should be straightforward, and end up fueling disappointment and despair. The result is the pervasive distrust of government evident across much of the industrialized world.

The ideas which lead to this hypercritical way of talking about government are deeply rooted, even among protagonists of active government. Here’s the slippery slope  in mainstream economics.  Economics, we learn in the standard canon (or ought to learn, as even a recent book on the pro-market ‘Chicago school’ of economics reminds) walks on two legs. There is the private sphere, where markets offer an efficient, adaptive mechanism of economic and social organization. And there is the sphere where public value differs from private value, so collective action is needed. Standard welfare economics thus takes as its point of departure the distinction between the narrow goal of private profit-seeking and the broader purpose of the pursuit of social welfare. Yet, somehow, even as many of us embrace the goal of pursuing social welfare, its high-minded resonance seduces us into forgetting that what we mean by ‘social welfare’ cannot be derived straightforwardly. It is the outcome of an ongoing, messy, contested political process — one which, in democratic societies, inevitably pervades public action.

As a second example of  the (sometimes) unintentional slippery slope, consider the seeming truism that ‘good governance is necessary for development’. This notion, as Frank Fukuyama reminds us, confuses contemporary ‘Denmark’, with the long, messy journey en route, the journey of ‘getting to Denmark’. (The problem goes deeper than intellectual confusion. As I explore in my blogpost on Obamacare, I  increasingly am convinced that the ‘good governance’ dictum has served de facto as a  tool for discrediting government, one which many of us genuinely committed to public action have unwittingly embraced.)

Here’s how Michael Lipsky, in a  2010 ‘Afterword’ to his 1980 classic book on Street Level Bureaucracy, described the rhetorical trap we fall into:

“In principle, a debate between defenders and critics of an expansive state can be healthy. That debate is rarely engaged, however….. Advocates with an interest in an expansive government role typically focus on the shortcomings of the sector in which they take an interest….If they defend anything at all, they defend the programs they support, but not the set of collective interests of which their favored programs are a part…”

“…The tendency of media to report on government failures but ignore government successes… ensures that when government comes to public attention it is in a negative light. Moreover, elected officials rarely praise government, possibly because they fear being regarded as self-serving. They almost never draw attention to government’s essential role. With conservatives opposing government programs in principle, liberals opposing them in practice, and news about them focusing only on their failings, it is hardly a wonder that the reputation of government is low……  Of course, democratic governments, like all human endeavors, are sometimes flawed…. But of the major institutions in society, only government sustains attacks without effective rebuttal or even measured assessment of the charges…”.

Instead of empty sloganeering (from the left or the right) what is needed for the public sector to thrive is active, ‘with the grain’ engagement with the often-challenging day-to-day realities that are the essence of democratic governance. (More on how this might work in my posts on the Washington Metro and on Obamacare.) Democracies often are messy – but can thrive in the midst of messiness. Messiness and complexity often are part of the package —  inseparable from the vision of human dignity and active citizenship that lie at the heart of democracy’s promise.




4 responses

  1. Brian – this is an excellent starting point for a better understanding of government. I look forward to your subsequent essays. I recently took on the job of defending explaining the virtues of local government in Peru – an uphill job.

  2. Pingback: Clear seeing « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

  3. Great blog Brian! Daniel Carpenter and George Krause (2012) identified the roots of the public sector’s inability to actively enagage in the failure to deal effectively with multiple audiences with divergent “…beliefs about an organization’s capacities, intentions …and mission.” The tendency of these multiple audiences is to look at public agencies “through a glass but dimly” and this predisposes them to either percieve governments as poor performing and corrupt or trying their level best to perform under difficult (often inherited) circumstances. As Carpenter and Krause argue, the pressure to please multiple audiences leads agencies to “…emulate the actions and structures of others as a way of insulating themselves from criticism by audience members.” The order of the day is to try to eschew the messiness brought to bear by these multiple audiences in favour of mimicry. I wonder if this analysis can be used to better understand the current political and governance discourse in South Africa? Fascinating stuff Pofessor Levy!

    • Thanks, Quinton. Indeed, as per Carpenter and Krause, the challenge of effectively engaging multiple audiences around a messy, complex endeavor is a formidable one. All too readily, the response is (Matt Andrews and others style…..) ‘isomorphic mimicry’ — putting disproportionate energy around communicating a façade of perfection, but (because the genuinely important tasks are not consistent with the dominant narrative of what should be done), ending up making very little actual progress. Over time, the façade is, of course, likely to lose its credibility — setting in motion a very unpredictable dynamic. (And, yes, perhaps this does sound a lot like contemporary South Africa!!!). Brian

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