A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Some Early Thoughts on The Machinery of Government

I'm enjoying Joseph Heath's latest book, The Machinery of Government. It has particular relevance to me at present, as a UK civil servant currently working on implementation of the NI Protocol, where the UK Government is currently taking what we might describe as a "high legal risk" approach.

At present I've read the first three chapters ("Taking Public administration Seriously", "A General Framework for the Ethics of Public Administration", "Liberalism: From Classical to Modern"), skipped the fourth and fifth on the welfare state and cost-benefit analysis, and am half-way through the sixth on administrative discretion. I assume that chapters four and five are more developed versions of his previous papers on these topics, but may have missed things which would rebut my criticisms below.

Some things I've enjoyed:

  • Heath makes a convincing case that the topic is under-studied: state officials wield vast vast power which really doesn't have a good democratic justification. He also, I think, provides a solid explanation of where this justification does come from.
  • I have serious disagreements with his interpretation of liberalism, but it's a very clear statement of why he believes it.
  • It's also by far the best defence I've read of the Communitarian/Habermasian idea that moral philosophy is about uncovering the principles implicit in our practices, rather than trying to divine an eternal moral law. He compares it to his business ethics, collected in the earlier volume Morality, Competition, and the Firm: "One of the major problems with traditional business ethics is that it treats morality as something entirely external to the practice of business. As a result, the pronouncements of ethicists tend to arrive like an alien imposition, which in turn gives businesspeople license to ignore them, on the grounds that the expectations are simply incompatible with the demands of running a successful business. My approach, therefore, has been to focus on the moral obligations that are already implicit in market relations, and that are advanced through commercial and competition law, as well as regulation." (page x)
  • To this end, he talks largely about an existing ethos, various written and unwritten norms which exist around civil service practice. I have been thoroughly convinced that this is the correct approach, as opposed to attempting to derive morality separately and then apply it in this case - despite my utilitarian inclinations.

Some things I've thought less of:

  • Every one of Heath's books contains a long history of the topic at hand. His defence of this is that, as a student of Habermas, he believes you can only understand our moral practices through understanding the journey by which we arrived at them. Fair enough - but do you really need 60 pages to do this in a 400 page book?
  • Moreover - it's striking that for all that he talks about the history of liberalism, he does not any attempt to give the history of Westminster-style civil services, despite the obvious relevance of this. If one is aiming to defend a particular view of the principles inherent in civil service, it's fair enough to think that John Locke is more important than the Northcote-Trevelyan Reforms, but I'd expect you to at least make the case. For example, I am not aware of any mention of the latter in The Machinery of Government. Nor is there analysis of actually-existing civil service codes beyond the (admittedly, in my experience accurate) statements that they are often vague and give little to no guidance on how to weigh different values like objectivity, neutrality, etc.
  • Going deep into history inevitably involves a great deal of historical interpretation. There are some glaringly "controversial" examples - to take one which clearly doesn't affect the main thesis, his claim that "Napoleon was able to conquer most of Europe, not because of any technological or tactical superiority, but rather because of the superior organisation capacity of the French state, not least its power to impose universal male conscription upon the population, which made it possible for Napoleon to field massive armies." (p120). He attributes this to liberalism. Conscription was clearly a boon but:
    • (a) logistical innovations which allowed French armies to travel faster, enabling things like the Ulm Maneuvre, were clearly much more important;
    • (b) Napoleon didn't exactly outnumber the Russian and Austrian armies he faced, conscription was at most an equalising force;
    • (c) this really needs a comparison to the Revolutionary Government which preceded Napoleon;
    • (d) why would you use this as your example of liberalism boosting military capacity rather than the well-known example of the UK being able to borrow at lower rates of interest?
  • That example merely raises questions of attention to detail. One which I'll admit to not exactly being expert in, but which frankly seems fatal to his thesis if my understanding is correct - the Wars of Religion were ended not by agreement for states to stay out of religion - to follow liberal neutrality - but agreeing, at the Peace of Westphalia, that each ruler would control religion in his own land, and they would not try to force religion on each others' lands. This did not prevent wars, of course, but it prevented the religious wars which Heath claims liberalism arrived to prevent.
  • His advocacy of a purely political liberalism is fine so far as it goes, but does rather take a lot of the force out of his claims that we don't recognise liberalism for the same reason fish don't recognise water.

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