Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

September 10, 2008

Decline of the Independent Citizen Realm

‘The last 20 years have seen an aggressively interventionist state systematically enfeebling the institutions and practices that nurtured it”. So writes David Marquand in his book ‘Decline of the Public’. In Scotland, our Centres for Regeneration, Community Development etc are either state run or NGO’s. The independent citizen realm is under threat

David Marquand

Decline of the Public, Polity Press 2004

At this point, some definitions are in order. The public domain, in my sense of the term, should not be confused with the public sector. It depends on public institutions (notably the rule of law), but it is not confuted to them. In principle, a large public domain could coexist with a small public sector. There is certainly nothing sacrosanct about the ratio between the two which obtained in mid- and late-twentieth-century Britain. In earlier periods the ratio was very different; and there is no reason of principle why it should not be different in future. As I shall show in the next chapter, the growth of the public domain provides one of the central themes of nineteenth-century British history. For most of that period, the public sector grew much more slowly. Government expenditure as a proportion of GNP was lower in 1900 than it had been in 1831, and in absolute terms it did not grow very much until the decade of the 1890s. As late as the 1920s, Keynes expected further growth in the public domain (not that he used the term) -not as a result of state action but because privately owned companies would increasingly assume public responsibilities. The Bank of England (then still in private ownership) was already a classic case of such a company. In the 1950s, Anthony Crosland, the high priest of the revisionist social democracy of the day, thought one of the reasons why capitalism had changed so radically that it could hardly be called capitalism any longer was that the managers of big capitalist firms increasingly adopted a public-service ethic.

Indeed, the public domain should not be seen as a ‘sector’ at all. It is best understood as a dimension of social life, with its own norms and decision rules, cutting across sectoral boundaries: as a set of activities, which can he (and historically have been) carried out by private individuals, private charities and even private firms as well as public agencies. It is symbiotically linked to the notion of a public interest~ in principle distinct from private interests; central to it are the values of citizenship, equity and service. In it goods are distributed on the basis of need and not of personal ties or access to economic resources. It is a space, protected from the adjacent market and private domains, where Strangers encounter each other as equal partners in the common life of the society -a space for forms of human flourishing which cannot be bought in the market-place or found in the right- knit community of the clan of family or group of intimates. In a memorable account of the growth of social citizenship in the post-war period, T. H. Marshall wrote that its real significance lay, not in promoting income equality but in ‘a general enrichment of the concrete substance of civilised life …an equalisation between the more and rite less fortunate at all levels. He was writing about the post-war welfare state, but he caught the essence of the public domain as such.

In it citizenship rights trump both market power and kinship or neighbourhood bonds; the duties of citizenship take precedence both over market incentives and over private loyalties. As the Dahrendorf Commission put it,

The private world of love and friendship, and the market world of interest and incentive, are not the only dimensions of human life in society. There is a public domain with its own values…In the public domain people act neither out of the kindness of their hearts, nor in response to incentives, monetary or otherwise, but because they have a sense of serving the community.

That, of course, is an ideal, and a demanding ideal at that. No one could pretend that it is always followed in practice. Indeed, pan of the point of the story I told earlier in this chapter is to show how in recent years, it has been badly flouted by civil servants and by politicians of both major parties. But this does not mean that the ideal is in some way unreal or irrelevant: the same applies to the norms of the market domain and the private domain. Sellers sometimes collude to do down buyers, and friends are sometimes false, but it does not follow that the market and private domains are in some sense norm less. The important point is that the ideal is distinct and, so to speak, autonomous: that the norms governing behaviour in the public domain and the practices that embody and sustain them; the quality and character of the human relationships engendered in it; the principles that govern access to the activities that are carried on in it; and the incentives and disincentives that affect those who carry them on differ from their equivalents in the market and private domains.

In the private domain, loyalty to friends and family is a (perhaps the) supreme venue. In the public domain, it is not. E. M. Forster’s famous assertion that he would rather betray his country than his friends was shocking because he had applied the norms of the private domain to a domain where they do not belong. Favouritism and nepotism are shocking for the same reason. To apply the values of the private domain to the public domain is, in a profound to corrupt it. It is equally shocking, because equally corrupting, to apply market norms to the public domain. That is why it is a crime to buy and sell votes or honours or government policies or justice. In the market domain, goods and services are -quite properly -commodities to be bought and sold. The price mechanism allocates resources, including labour. In principle at least, free competition ensures that they are allocated efficiently. But votes, honours government policies and justice belong to the public domain. And because they belong to the public domain they must not be commodified. By the same token, the measuring rods that assess efficiency in the market domain -“throughput’, productivity, added value, the monetary return on capital -have no place in the public domain. Academics do not miraculously become more efficient when the staff-student ratio falls and lectures are overcrowded; the value of a stay in hospital is not enhanced if low-paid contract nurses with little commitment to the job, replace established nursing teams.