In Political Culture

The New Forum Is Not Social Partnership. It Is Worse.


As things get better, ghosts from the past appear and disturb the party. House prices increase, new houses are building, the property supplements fatten and the possibility of another bubble haunts us. The Troika depart the stage, its script completed. The burden of choice and the weight of responsibility descend on the government and their civil servants who must write the script for the next act. No wonder they are nervous, no wonder they seek the assistance of an ‘a forum on issues like pay, taxation, and what services can be afforded’, no wonder the bien–pensants  are troubled by – horror of horrors – the ghost of social partnership. No! No! We are assured, this is not Social Partnership. Social Partnership was a bad thing. This is a good thing.

Now, whether it was a good or a bad thing, social partnership, Irish style, was a failure. Whether the proposed forum is a good or bad thing depends on how we understand the problem it proposes to solve. Given the record of this government it is not surprising that the problem is hardly analysed and barely discussed. Once the problem is stated it is immediately clear that while social partnership was an inadequate solution, the proposed forum barely counts as one.

The problem is not a new one. It is as old as politics. It is encapsulated in this examination question, variants of which featured regularly in my exam papers, and, I guess, politics exams everywhere. No democracy without interest groups; interest groups the greatest threat to democracy. Discuss. Students could approach the question from a number of directions. Those with taste for political philosophy could see it as an opportunity to compare and contrast Hobbes and Rousseau, while Marxists could explain how it exemplifies a contradiction inherent in capitalism and its liberal political order. The political scientists could explore the pluralist model with particular attention to its limitations as discussed by Public Choice theorists in general and Mancur Olson in particular.

It is worth reminding ourselves what we can learn from these lines of enquiry.

Hobbes, Rousseau and the Common Sense of our Politics

Where we stand determines what we can see. Our efforts to know and understand the world with their collaborations, conflicts and disputes rest on an unquestioned given – a position and the horizon that it opens up for our explorations. To say that the given is unquestioned is not to suppose that it cannot be questioned. Of course, it can. But the questioning brackets ‘reality’ and brings us into another realm. We also know that positions shift: the world our grandparents looked out on was not ours. Talk of positions, givens, horizons, is vague. Charles Taylor’s concept of a social imaginary gives us greater precision.

Bringing positions into question and exploring how they shift is both complicated and demanding. Charles Taylor masters the complexity and takes on the demands.  In his A Secular Age [Taylor 2007] he deploys the concept of a ‘social imaginary’ to good effect. He defines it thus:

By social imaginary, I mean something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think of social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.

There are important differences between social imaginary and social theory. I adopt the term [i] because my focus is on the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is not often expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends. It is also [ii] the case that theory is often the possession a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is what is shared by a large group of people, if not the whole society. Which leads to a third difference:[iii] the social imaginary is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy. It often happens that what starts off as a theories held by a few people come to infiltrate the social imaginary, first of elites, perhaps then of the whole society.

–P 171 Taylor 2007.

I think we can usefully detach a ‘political imaginary’ from the ‘social imaginary’ to give us the unconsidered common sense of our politics. The a-theoretical nature of the imaginary makes it difficult to pin down. How can we outline understandings embedded in practices? As Taylor observes while the imaginary is in no way theoretical it can start off as theories held by a few people ‘[that] come to infiltrate the social imaginary.’ Find the thinkers that contributed to the common sense of our politics, and we have a way forward. Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau would figure prominently on any list of candidates.  I select Hobbes and Rousseau; the test of my choice is how well we can recognize ourselves in the ‘mirror’ their thought holds up to us.

Hobbes instructs us that politics is all about interests and democracy is impossible. The desperate condition of the state of nature combined with our fear of death can instruct us to establish an absolute, sovereign authority. Our docility stops there. All men are by nature provided by notable multiplying glasses [that is their Passions and Selfe-Love] through which every little payment appeareth a great grievance, but are destitute of those prospective glasses [namely Civil and Moral Sciences] to see farre off the miseries that hang over them and cannot without payment be avoided.  Any effort to rule ourselves is thus bound to fail as factions compete to advance their interests at the expense of everybody else threatening to precipitate us into civil war. We have good reason to submit to the sovereign whose interest directs him to see ‘a farre off’. This is so even if our own interests are frustrated. Frustrated interests are the cost we must pay for peace and commodious living.

Rousseau writes a footnote to Hobbes. He grants Hobbes his state of nature with one important caveat. Hobbes state of nature, is not, he argues, the aboriginal condition of humans. It describes the circumstances we would find ourselves in should the existing political order collapse. The murderous passions and violent competition that that would then make our lives ‘nasty, solitary, brutish and short’ are those nurtured in us by an aristocratic order. This order, all but extinguishes our amour-de-soi [pure self-love] as amour-propre [love of self that depends on the good opinion of others] dominates our lives and our relationships. Hobbes purely political solution will not work. To recover true passions and authentic relationships, we must transform both society and politics. A will coerced, by social convention or political diktat, is a corrupted will. A frustrated interest is a coerced will. We need a democratic society and a democratic politics, to defend, protect and advance our autonomy. The high abstraction of his Social Contract is a measure of the distance we must go to find it.

Hobbes and Rousseau displaced the classic concern with the aims and purposes that sustain human flourishing and the political order that supports them. To have aims/purposes is to have an interest in acquiring the means to pursue them. For Hobbes conflicts of interest were the political problem that took precedence over all others. The interest in self-preservation dominates the state of nature. Once we exit it and find peace, talk of aims and purposes threatens irreconcilable conflicts. Religion is a particular danger in this respect. It should be controlled and curtailed if we are not to find ourselves back in the ‘warre of all against all’.  For Rousseau, individual autonomy must be the predominant aim and a social contract that guaranteed it, the predominant political purpose.  No person, or group, should be allowed impose their aims and purposes on us. The only laws we should obey are those that we write for ourselves.

Grand Narratives and the Political Imaginary

How have we succeeded in reconciling the impossible with the essential? There is more to the imaginary than the core supplied by Hobbes and Rousseau. The imaginary was complemented by ‘grand narratives’ whose transcendent horizons provided the required prospective glasses. Hobbes appears to have no place for such horizons. Science provides his prospective glasses. Yet, a reading between the lines suggest that while an aristocratic order was not, emphatically, natural,  we could expect it to be the normal condition of those lucky enough to be rescued from the state of nature by following the instruction of science. Honour, and the competition for honour, would bind us together in respecting ‘national honour’. Rousseau recognised the need for a ‘civil religion’, a vision that he did not supply [the first of the visionless visionaries?]. An amalgam of nationalism and religion, that allowed aims/purposes, combined with the Hobbes/Rousseau core and sustained nation-states with their monarchies, their empires and finally their democracies.

Marxists would argue that these grand narratives were a sham, ideological covers that concealed the exploitation inherent in capitalism whose emergence they facilitated. The ‘impossible’ and the ‘essential’ mirror capitalism’s contradiction: we could only have true democracy when the particular interest of the bourgeoisie was overcome by the general interest represented by the working [universal] class. While this account has more going for it than is now acknowledged, history has made its end point less and less plausible. Marx wrote a melodrama with a happy ending; today we can only read it as a tragedy. We must have Rousseau but we have to live with Hobbes.

The consequent problems emerge with renewed force as grand narratives fade. The sense that there were elites [secular, religious] whose authority we should honour, a hangover from the aristocratic order disappears.  Nationalism no longer provides the all-encompassing horizon in which contending aggregations of interests could compete in identifying the general will. National identities still have an emotional force, as sporting events demonstrate. Detached, now, from grand-narratives, they accomplish little more, politically, than the drawing of boundaries to exclude foreigners. Can economics rescue us?

Economics and Economists Ascendent

Economics dominates the social sciences. Economists dominate the discussion of public-policy. On the rare occasions when historians, political/social scientists, philosophers are summoned to instruct us, their voices lack authority. If we value them it is because they entertain rather than enlighten us. Of course, economists are not beyond criticism. They are scolded for their lack of ethics, the limitations of their assumptions and their pursuit of elegant mathematical models at the expense of engagement with the ‘real’ world. We suppose that if only economists corrected and expanded their thinking all will be well. We look to better economists with better economic models rather than to the contributions of other disciplines. So the critics affirm their dominance.

It was not always so. As the decline of nationalism [or at least the transformation of its character] shows, the political imaginary is not immutable. The practices it sustains run into obstacles and as we adapt, or adjust, this or that element is stretched, perhaps to breaking point. The ‘whole cloth’ frays, holes appear. Universities have many purposes. If one is to preserve the memory of past imaginaries and the reasoning that sustained them, another one is to assist in the repair and maintenance of the prevailing imaginary; to help keep the show on the road by providing a critical distance from which we can find our way around, through, or beyond obstacles.

Accordingly, when nationalism was important, historians were important. They revised, shaded, and sometimes rewrote the national narrative. They mattered. When the imaginary supported national aims, their articulation and justification were important. Philosophers mattered. The design and critique of the social arrangements that facilitated, or inhibited, their pursuit mattered. Sociologists were important. Today, as the imaginary retreats to its Hobbes/Rousseau core, only interests matter and economics is important

How successful is it at ‘darning the holes’? Mancur Olson’s modelling of interest groups is a test case. How does he help us understand and resolve the problems posed by interest groups to democracy?

Interest Groups: When They Form and Why They Are Dangerous

In his classic work The Logic of Collective Action [Olson 1971] invites us to consider a collection of individuals that could benefit from a collective good should they organise to acquire it. Think of the producers of some good or service and the price fixing arrangement that would boost their profits. Think of the consumers of the good or service and the benefit of lower prices. Think of medical consultants and the benefit of a favourable contract of service with the HSE. Think of patients, their relatives, patients-to-be and the benefit of a patient-orientated service. The question is; how likely is it that interest groups will form to pursue the benefits?

Olson finds the answer in how individuals figure out the costs and benefits of joining a group. The costs involve membership fees and time spent at meetings working out what proposal are worth pursuing. The benefit is the collective good that goes to all members of the collection whether or not they join the group. The likelihood that the group will form whether or not they join is an important consideration. If they do not join and the group forms and succeeds, they will enjoy the benefit at no cost. If the probability that their joining will make a difference is low, why incur the cost? Putting these together, with more nuances than I am reporting, and the conclusion is clear: the greater the number of individuals who share an interest in a collective good the less likely is it that a group will form to pursue it. The evidence supports the conclusion. We find few if any consumers organizing to protect themselves from the predations of the far from uncommon cartels of producers.  Hospital consultants, and nurses, are well-organised, while patients and patients-to-be are not. The list of examples is easily extended.  One counter example deserves mention. Trade unions, for example, typically represent large number of workers. Olson explains their formation with reference to ‘selective incentives’. These are benefits that that are available only to the individuals that join the group. My former trade union Impact, for example, offered its members discounts on insurance policies. Its diligence in defending individual members who found themselves in conflict with management, perhaps threatened with dismissal, and regardless of the sympathy, or lack of it, among their fellow workers was, in itself, an insurance policy. This consideration leads to another nuance. Whatever the reasons that draw people into union membership, they are not sufficient to move them to active involvement. The average union member is a free rider on the energy, and commitment of the minority that go to meetings and serve on committees.

Olson was not only a proficient economist as the elegant modelling of The Logic of Collective Action demonstrates, he had, as have so many public choice theorists, a lively social conscience. He wanted to make the world a better place. He supposed that, all other things being equal, economic growth contributed to well-being.  He was intrigued by the question ‘why were some nations more economically more successful than others?’ Sure, variations in the natural endowments of nations were important. Nonetheless, we find differences in the economic success of nations with, roughly, the same endowments. He investigated the question in his second classic, The Rise and Decline of Nations [Olson 1984, still in print]. He found the answer in applying his previous work to the study of political economy. In doing so he challenged the benign account of how we can have Rousseau while living with Hobbes.

Our Rousseauian aspirations to autonomy in a democratic society where all are treated with equal respect grow stronger while our political institutions move further from the political ideal sketched in Social Contract. Like Rousseau, we fear particular interests that influence governments to impose policies that advance their interests at our expense, frustrating the general will. We do not follow Hobbes in supporting an absolute ruler who is above the fray. The sovereign authority that protects us from civil war must be elected by us and accountable to us in regular elections.

Our liberal, pluralist, representative, democracy does not outlaw particular interests as Rousseau prescribes or rise above them as Hobbes advices, It aspires to embraces them, engage with them and manage them. Interest groups are the first move in mediating between the particular and the general. They are evidence of a healthy democracy; the first in the line of fire of its enemies. Political parties are a special type of interest group that play a crucial role in organizing the representation of interests. While other interest groups are intent on ensuring that public policy does not damage their members’ interest they are not interested in public policy per se. Political parties are. They seek to win elections and the chance to introduce new policies, and implement established policies, in line with their notion of the common good. To succeed they must aggregate interests. This aggregation is another move in the mediation between the particular and the general. Nonetheless, what it produces remains versions of particular interests. How do we manage to get to the general interest?

The answer: electoral competition that drives political parties away from too close an association with any particular interest. Support the farmers and the urban vote is lost. Support the captains of industry and our competitors will expose your partisanship. While a ‘snapshot’ of public-policy at any moment may reveal policies pampering particular interests under the pressure of competition, the trend will be towards outcomes that citizens overall. We may never find the general interest but we are moved in its direction.

Olson’s analysis challenges this benign picture. As the The Logic of Collective Action instructs us, small unrepresentative groups are far more likely to form than groups representing the interests of large numbers. When large numbers are organised they are likely to be unwieldy defenders of the status quo. Not all, but a significant number of interest groups will be in the business of seeking regulations that mitigate market discipline, ensuring excessive profits and the reduction of competition or protecting the inefficient from the fate that should come to those that fail to give consumers what they want at a price that they can afford. Governments who listen to interest groups, as they must, implement policies that reduce national output, slow economic growth as they turn away from policies that challenge the status quo.

This picture would be greatly complicated if we had to factor in those amalgamations of religion and nationalism that complemented the Hobbes/Rousseau core of our political imaginaries. But we do not have to. Individuals no longer identify themselves as part of a larger whole, a families, local communities, wider social groups. The do not see themselves as participants in traditions willing to learn from their authorities how the aims and purposes were best advanced and their interests defended. Political parties remain important. They concoct a ‘brand’ out of their heritage with the help of marketing experts who advise them on how to sell it to the voters. Olson’s analysis would have been unimaginable in the ’50s, to read it in the ’70s was challenging, to read it in the ’80s, stimulating. Reading it today, we ask ‘so what’s new’. His conclusion seems self-evident.

The conclusion

In well-functioning pluralist democracies, interest groups are respected actors in the narratives in which policies are accommodated, adapted, adjusted or made. Their views may not be respected but they are listened to. They shape the direction of policy. The presumption that competition among them will auto-correct for their biases is wrong. The voice of the citizen is muted as small, producer groups dominate.

We can think of the national product as a ‘cake’. The small unrepresentative groups that dominate the field of force where policies are made and implemented are intent on increasing the size of their members ‘slice’. There are two ways in which this can happen: [1] the group increases its members’ share and [2] the cake grows bigger while the members maintain their share. The group asks itself which option to go for – bigger share or bigger cake? The answer is a no-brainer – work to increase, or at the very least, protect its share even at the cost of a smaller cake.

Politicians trapped by the logic of the game see little option but to carry on as their economies stagnate. Very occasionally, a politician will stand back, look at the game, identify its dysfunctions and seek a remedy. This was Margaret Thatcher’s contribution to British politics. She had an aim beyond appeasing interest groups and winning the next election: to restore British greatness, reinvigorate its economy and give the citizens back their voice that had been drowned out by interest groups. She took the Hobbesian route of rising above interest groups. She found her ‘prospective glasses’ in the ‘civil and moral sciences’ as elaborated by public choice theorists. Her choice of guides was reasonable. There is no doubt that the New Right analyses were the most perceptive, the most serious and the most public spirited around.

Despite its evident merits and relevance to our fiscal problems and economic stagnation, the New Right found little popular support in Ireland. Was this yet further evidence of the anti-intellectualism of the politicians, the commentariat, and the civil servants? Was it a hangover from the dreadful 1950s, a vestigial presence of the reviled Catholic Church’s social teaching whose Aristotelian/Thomist perspective supposed that reason could find a common good above, and beyond, the providential deliverance of the market’s invisible hand?  Perhaps our small size meant another solution was possible, one followed by some other European states? Whatever the reason Bertie Ahern pushed ahead with a solution first adumbrated by Charles Haughey.

To understand this solution, we need to understand why it is rational for interest groups to seek to increase their members’ share of the cake even if this means a smaller cake. Suppose a group decided to put the public interest first. Henceforth, it would work to increase the size of the cake to the benefit of all. If no other group followed this path, then its members would lose out: the size of the cake would not increase and their share of it would very likely decrease. The groups are caught in a prisoner’s dilemma. The rational pursuit of their interests leads to suboptimal result overall.  No amount of sermonizing, appeals to the national interest, or new visions will get them out of the dilemma. The only route out is an institutional arrangement that changes the game. Social Partnership was such an arrangement.

It transformed the relationship between the government and interest group. It gave interest groups a greater say in policy-making and oversight but at a price. While they were not expected to sacrifice their interests for the common good, they were expected to identify it in the context of the good-for-all. The institutional arrangements broadened the horizon in which the interests worked out what would benefit their members, bringing interdependencies into focus.

This neo-corporatism was not an ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’. It was an arrangement found in many of the smaller European states. There was, however, a distinctive Irish dimension. Typically, neo-corporatism engages with the economically powerful-trade unions and representatives of business. We chose to invite representatives of the socially excluded and economically powerless to the table. [An echo of Catholic Social Teaching, perhaps?]

Social Partnership did not get a good press, or more accurately it got little press. It is astonishing that so significant an innovation in policy-making [and in the design or democracy] received so little attention and analysis. [The question must be asked: have we the weakest, most incompetent, least serious media in Europe?] There were critics. The followers of Rousseau decried what they saw as the triumph of the particular and the unrepresentative over the general. Their dislike of the solution, however, did not move them to any analysis of how, in a transforming political landscape, the electoral-representative component of our democracy could improve its aim at the general will. They stand alongside the Public Sector modernizers waving flags. [See my previous post.]

The far more realistic and serious Hobbesians argued that no institutional arrangement could equip interests groups with ‘prospective glasses’ converting self-serving factions into servants of the commonweal.  They promoted a minimalist state detached from interest groups. Perhaps they are correct. Certainly, despite its early successes, Social Partnership must be judged a failure. It is astonishing that its performance has not been analysed, its successes and failures accounted for. Important lessons have not been learnt. [The question must be asked: what are our political/social scientists doing to justify the tax payers’ funds?] In the absence of such analysis, what option have we, but to go with the Hobbesians?

So, we must ask why on earth is the government proposing to give interest groups a voice and the opportunity to influence public policy in a forum where they have every inducement to press their own case regardless of the good-for-all ?

To have a target in sight and to miss it is one thing, to have no target in sight and to fire aimlessly into the sky another. When the case is adjusting the design for democracy to match changing circumstances and improve policy-making, this government and their civil servants are incapable of finding targets. We may forgive the politicians. Advertising executives worry about branding and seductive imagery. Producing products is not their concern. One might suppose civil servants had a professional interest in improving the standard and quality of our public administration. Reflection on this should equip them to advise their masters. They do not have this interest and are not so equipped. One might suppose that some members of the academic community might be interested in our design for democracy and equipped to explore its dilemmas. There do not appear to be any such. There is no counter-balance to the mad men.

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  • Cathal Coleman

    Great stuff Frank. I’ve tweeted on it, so expect a tsunami of reaction! Cathal