Two new books on contemporary political problems are stimulating and informative. But the authors should learn to speak to our ideals as well as our needsby Alan Ryan / August 27, 2006 / Leave a comment
Good and Bad Power by Geoff Mulgan (Allen Lane, £20) Why Politics Matters by Gerry Stoker (Palgrave Macmillan, £14.99)
Good and Bad Power is a terrific book but slightly baffling. It is terrific in all sorts of ways: it starts with the view that the state is the servant of the people, settles down to ask how it can be a good servant rather than a bad master, and then pursues the implications of two simple, powerful ideas—that trust is more important than coercion or money in allowing a state to be effective, and that good states seek a golden mean between such a degree of weakness that they cannot achieve the good they ought and such a degree of strength that their citizens become slaves. It does it with a wealth of historical example; and much of the time it gives the impression that Geoff Mulgan spends his evenings asking Machiavelli what he thinks of the insights of Pericles and Max Weber, and what advice Thomas Aquinas would give to a New Labour government that wants to empower the citizenry but isn’t quite sure how to do it.
One baffling aspect of a book constructed like this is obvious enough: how on earth can Mulgan have found time to read and write so much while first setting up Demos, then directing strategy in No 10, and most recently creating and running the Young Foundation, while being a visiting professor in too many institutions to count quickly? The interesting puzzle is the intellectual one with which everyone who teaches the history of political ideas and institutions wrestles. What, other than decoration, does the invocation of Machiavelli, imperial (and Maoist) China, Thomas Hobbes, Al-Farabi, Aquinas, Cicero and a whole host of other persons and places add to the argument? This is, after all, not a history of political ideas, and it is not intended to answer the question, “What does history teach us?” It is part of the purpose of the book to explain the nature of the state and therefore the problems with which it is beset by offering a historical sketch of the genesis of the institutions we have today, but the real focus is on the puzzle of how to preserve relations of trust between citizens and governments in an age when governments confront tasks previous governments never needed to think about.
Those of us who start…