When we ponder questions of social and public policy and the means for resolving social problems or advancing values beneficial to the state, there are a number of parties which the public tends to think of as being the natural address for action.
One such group is the elected leadership. Elected representatives are usually loyal to the public that elected them, but their main goal is to be elected again – and they therefore tend to adopt policies which do not consider the long term. Dr. Sagi Barmak and Idan Eretz nicely describe this phenomenon in their article:
Public choice theory teaches us that an impartial examination of the democratic mechanism and the system of incentives operating therein, leads to the following sad conclusion: relations between politicians and voters increase the odds of irresponsible fiscal behavior, primarily a growing bloat in the national budget. The reason for this is clear: politicians wish to be elected again, and therefore tend to increase public spending to demonstrate their activity – without also mentioning the tax burden on the public.
In other words, elected representatives are the most authentic representative of public opinion, but the very nature of the incentive system in which they operate means they tend towards populism and may advance a wasteful, inefficient, irresponsible policy, and worst of all: a policy which will not solve the problem it was created to solve.
A second group is the professional ranks or in its less exciting name: the bureaucracy. In Dr. Ran Baratz’s article in Hashiloach, “The Dangerous Myth of the Professional Ranks,” the author reminds us that the classical role of the bureaucracy is to execute the policy determined by the sovereign. Baratz shows how the bureaucracy seeks to accumulate power and does not fulfill its role as a professional, expert, objective, and neutral factor.
To this we should add the fact that in practice, a significant portion of the professional ranks reveal themselves to be utterly unprofessional and inefficient, unable to think of the future and preferring their personal interest (someone mention tenure?) over the public interest – and therefore, in effect, as a party which is not faithful to its mission – realizing the policy of the elected representatives is a reflection of the publics’ will. This is nicely described by Mathan Rothman and Alon Tuval:
The data speaks for itself: The low rate of employee turnover in state service attests to a real managerial problem. An examination of the situation on the ground, taking place above and under the law, exposed the deeper reasons which made the process of firing almost impossible: from the need of precise documentation, to the difficulty on deciding on the firing track, the internal pressure by workers unions, and ending with the lack of backing by senior management and in the examination of the process at the Labour Court through a managerial lens.
A third group to turn to is the free market and private corporations. These are committed first and foremost to earning profits for their owners, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and they therefore are not enough to ensure the solution of a given social problem. Moreover, in some cases private companies may exploit their position vis-à-vis the state (“cronyism”, or money-politics as we put it more often) and to create additional social problems (preserving a monopoly status, creating entry barriers to the market and raising prices) as described by Professor Randal Holcombe. To this we can add Professor Milton Friedman’s explanation why it’s not natural that private firms meet present-day expectations and demonstrate corporate responsibility – as it doesn’t have the tools to decide or agree on the desirable social cause and how to solve it. To this we need to add the economic consideration: Such activity makes the product more expensive, harms its ability to compete globally, and effectively creates a tax imposed on the consumer and on workers.
A fourth group we can turn to – who is also not fit for the task – is the general public itself. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policy, Professor Bryan Caplan argues that four biases are common among the public to prevent it from making correct decisions: (1) a downplaying of the advantages of the market; (2) a dismissal of the economic advantages of cooperating with strangers; (3) a mistaken conception which prefers jobs over advancing technology and trade; (4) excessive pessimism and a tendency to have grim visions rather than sunny ones. All of these cause the public – who in the name of rational ignorance avoid deepening their knowledge – to make decisions that ultimately harm it.
This naturally brings us to the fifth option: civil society. Civil society has the power to solve most of the social problems we face, as it can mediate between all these groups and expose them to the knowledge necessary for making better and more professional decisions.
What is the approach of a conservative to public and social policy? Like a good conservative, I do not seek to reinvent the wheel, and will instead hang my hat on the established definition of Professor Moshe Koppel, who wrote the following in his article “The Great State Hammer”:
I would like to define the term “conservatism” according to the following three components: a preference for traditional values and a suspicion of revolutionary changes, support for individual freedom and opposition to forced collectivism, identification with and concern for the stability of communal institutions, especially family and nation. Conservatism is based, respectively, on three fundamental insights: traditions survived because they worked pretty well, and we should consider adopting them even when their benefit is not entirely clear, that freedom benefits individuals and the general public so long as there are institutions which ensure that the freedom of one does not come at the expense of the other too much, and that cooperation begins at home, runs through the community and the state, and spreads only when it has strong roots.
A conservative outlook therefore tends to avoid assigning the task of solving a social problem to the state, as this path necessarily might harm individual freedoms, but it will also not necessarily rely on capitalist market forces, preferring instead broad or local communal solutions. But how exactly can the community provide a response to the problems related to poverty and sexual violence? How can the community promote patriotism and cohesion? Cultural and religious activities? Education in its various forms? Through civil society!
This post is the fourth part of an article published in Hashiloach journal.