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 every sentence with “Mill once remarked that…” or “it is odd that Aristotle never noticed that…” find books like Good and Bad Power most congenial; but it is a real question whether Mulgan is best served by relying quite so much on the immortal dead rather than his own, first-hand experience. It is true that I cannot imagine discussing democracy in a meaningful way without contrasting our representative system with the direct democracy of the Athenians, or the system of “ward republics” that Thomas Jefferson advocated. However, what Mulgan can do that almost none of the rest of us can is to write with real authority about what it is like to try to make a pretty sclerotic governmental machine operate swiftly, flexibly, and with real sensitivity to the—often inarticulate, or at least unarticulated—needs of a population as diverse as the 60m inhabitants of Britain. Since he is most bothered by two very current questions: the seeming collapse of popular trust in government on the one hand and the absence of institutions to solve global rather than local problems on the other, he could have given us not a kiss-and-tell account of life with New Labour, but a blow-by-blow account of which bits of the state presently work properly, which bits don’t, and what new institutions we might invent to remedy these deficiencies. But that is perhaps only to say he has written such a good book of one sort that it makes one hungry for an equally good book of a different sort.
The book Geoff Mulgan has written is not without flaws. For instance, his account of the views of Thomas Hobbes is very misleading, and in a way that points to a weakness in his larger analytical framework. Mulgan thinks Hobbes was a pessimist or even a cynic, who thought we were power-hungry, rapacious, murderous and vengeful by nature. It’s not true. Hobbes thought we were anxious creatures desperate to control the future—not because we would not be “content with a moderate living,” but because in the absence of government there was no way to guarantee that we would have the means of life tomorrow and thereafter. That is, conflict is not rooted in human nature but in insecure situations. If anything, Hobbes was rather too optimistic about how well we could be made to behave once peace was assured.
The point is worth insisting on only because Mulgan is—at least for my taste—too quick to appeal to human nature and its familiar moral and affective flaws to explain why things go awry. And that means he sometimes doesn’t see who his friends are; he complains when David Hume says that it is a wise axiom in politics, though false in fact, to consider every man as either a fool or a knave. He takes Hume to be saying that we are all knaves. But Mulgan should have no quarrel with Hume’s actual point, which is that we should design institutions so that they neither make excessive demands on our knowledge and rationality nor tempt us into corruption.
Government, he observes right at the outset, makes more difference to our health, happiness, and quality of life than anything else we come in contact with. Good governments provide the legal, financial, and physical environment in which all our energies can be employed, both individually and collectively, to pursue the good life. Bad governments rob, murder, enslave and impoverish. As just about every political thinker has said, good governments need power in order to do good; but that power is also the power to do evil, and the power concentrated in the hands of government tempts the selfish and the acquisitive to acquire it for their own ends. The best device yet invented to mobilise sufficient trust and co-operation to make governments effective while ensuring they remain accountable and uncorrupt is representative democracy. But whether a network of nation states, even democratic ones, can look after the world as a whole is anyone’s guess. World government, Mulgan thinks, is a non-starter, and even if it weren’t so would be intolerably restrictive of individual liberty. But if we cannot be made to think intelligently about not only cross-border duties but duties to our descendants as well, the outlook is bleak.
Good and Bad Power is a book to dip in and out of; its range of reference is astonishing, and almost every page induces the desire to head for the nearest bookshop and explore further. But anyone who feels that they can think about our present discontents without contrasting them with those of Renaissance Florence should get hold of Gerry Stoker’s Why Politics Matters. Its subtitle is “making democracy work,” and that is exactly what it is about. It shares with Mulgan’s Good and Bad Power an aversion to denunciation and utopianism. Like Mulgan, Stoker is averse to explanations of the lack of trust in politicians that simply recite the failings of individual politicians. What he offers is a useful summary of the political science literature of the last two decades viewed through the filter of two crucial questions: how bad is the present state of representative democracy? and what institutional changes might restore it to better health?
There are no prizes for guessing that the answer to the first of these is that our democracy is not as bad as often painted; it is under pressure more from the individualism that is a natural accompaniment to free-market capitalism than it is from the media or corruption. As to improvements, piecemeal institutional change directed at making elections more competitive, representatives more representative—socially, and in the sense of being more responsive—and engagement with politics rather easier, would all do some good. Stoker is a lucid writer whose only stylistic vice is a self-deprecating jokiness born, one would guess, of 30 years of lecturing to second-year politics students. But he has nothing to be self-deprecating about; this is a very good and useful book, and aside from its intrinsic interest it is an excellent guide to the best of recent empirical political science. The one quibble one might level against it is that—like Good and Bad Power—it is so sober. Part of the business of the manufacture of trust must be a matter of finding a language adequate to our ideals and dreams as well as to our needs. This can be a corrupt process, but it is indispensable all the same. It is Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that we remember, not John Adams’s crabby dismissal of Jefferson’s words as political theatre; and we all know that the talented politician talks to us in poetry, and only the civil servant in prose.