Bureaucracy and Democracy: A Political Dilemma by Eva Etzioni-Halevy, Routledge, 278 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0415555371. Paperback, $64.71. Available from Amazon - link here
TUMBY BAY - The only textbook I ever kept from my rather eclectic university studies was Eva Etzioni-Halevy’s ‘Bureaucracy and Democracy: A Political Dilemma’.
I came across it recently while rummaging through my bookshelves for something else and decided to dip into it again.
After my own confusing experiences with the internal contradictions and dilemmas of government bureaucracies, the simple and concise ideas in ‘Bureaucracy and Democracy’ impressed me greatly.
As the author wrote, “… ideas that cannot be expressed clearly are themselves muddled and therefore are not worth expressing at all.”
Etzioni-Halevy begins her book with a question: Are Western democracies in crisis?
Given that the book was written in 1983, nearly 40 years ago, and we are still asking the same question, it is interesting to contrast what was going on then and what is happening today.
The early 1980s was a hinge point where the affluence of the post-World War II period was reaching its peak and running headlong into the era of austerity being introduced by Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the USA and their acolyte Malcolm Fraser in Australia.
Of the six or so democracies the author uses as reference points, one was Australia, where she was at the time a reader in sociology at the Australian National University.
My quick refresher flick through the pages of the book reveals a country we would hardly recognise today.
Australia still had large and stable bureaucracies in both the states and at national level. The widespread privatisation and outsourcing of government services was still to come.
The logic for maintaining large entities in public hands was laid out in reports like that of the Fulton Committee in the United Kingdom in 1968:
“Because the solutions to complex problems need long preparation, the source must be far-sighted; for its accumulated knowledge and expertise it must show initiative in working out what are the needs of the future and how they might be met.
“A special responsibility now rests upon the Civil Service because one Parliament or even one Government often cannot see the process through.”
Etzioni-Halevy was able to note that Australia was “one of the few countries where the penetration of politicians and party politics into the bureaucracy is limited”.
When the book was being written, Australia was still undertaking what the author calls “massive immigration” dating back to the end of World War II.
On 26 April 1976 the first boat load of refugees fleeing Vietnam had sailed into Darwin Harbour to be warmly welcomed by the conservative government of Malcolm Fraser. In the following seven years Australia accepted close to 60,000 Vietnamese refugees.
Further on, the author writes that “in Australia the practice of handing out material inducements to individuals in return for electoral support has never been widespread … and as a rule do not occur”.
Even in Fraser’s time, welfare spending was considered a natural function of government and was closely related to the idea of social equity.
It wasn’t until much later that welfare recipients became demonised as dole bludgers by what the author terms a resentful “New Right”.
These are just some examples of life as it was back then, 40 years ago.
The contrasts with today are very stark.
Then, Australia had a responsible and independent public service with a long corporate memory that was capable of complex planning for all sorts of events, including pandemics.
As a nation, we welcomed immigrants and refugees seeking asylum. Accepting to our shores all those people fleeing Vietnam in boats was considered a national duty.
Our public service was largely immune to political interference, considered abhorrent by both the public and most politicians.
Pork barrelling was frowned upon and practiced with caution, as was handing out favours to corporate mates.
Such malfeasance to public office certainly occurred but the penalties of exposure were real and were applied.
Welfare spending was considered a natural function of government and was closely related to the idea of social equity.
Since that time however we have seen neoliberalism establish a firm grip and the evils that accompany it, especially a massive upsurge in social inequity and, more recently, public service being seen as a pathway to personal influence and enrichment, have become commonplace in both bureaucracy and government.
Now In her late eighties, Eva Etzioni-Halevy is Professor Emeritus of Political Sociology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Her book is still widely read and is currently being translated into Chinese.