Friday, September 10, 2010

Do global problems require domestic solutions?

‘Overall the best governments seek to extend the freedom of their citizens; we should not want them to wither away but to maximize individual choice while standing guard over a sturdy infrastructure of institutions and services. What they do within their (permeable) borders is reflected in what they should seek to do outside, increasing the range of free choices that people can make. Far from there being a clear choice between domestic and foreign policy, they are now frequently one and the same’ (Chris Patten, ‘What Next?’, Penguin 2009: 443).

What Next?: Surviving the Twenty-first Century
It might seem to be a challenge for me to agree with the sentiments in that quote so soon after writing about the desirability of community self-regulation - governance without government. Those who want more self regulation must want government to ‘wither away’ to some extent to make room for this to happen. Yet I doubt whether it would be possible for people to prosper for long in a self regulating community without some kind of government to organize defence against external predators. I think Chris Pattern is right that we need governments to stand guard. I also think that if we had a government that was seeking to extend the freedom of its citizens, as Patten suggests, it would promote more community self regulation as a substitute for government regulation.

I’m not sure whether or not Patten would agree with me on that last point. Perhaps he would. He was not noted as a fan of statism when he was the last governor of Hong Kong and this book shows that he has retained many views favourable to individual freedom and free markets, despite having served as a European Commissioner.

One of the points that Patten makes in this book is that, despite globalization, nation states remain ‘the principal arbiters of politics’ (p.7). However, he questions how much states can do or achieve on their own:

‘Can they secure the welfare and safety of their citizens, policing borders, regulating economic activity, preventing financial ruin, protecting public health, avoiding environmental catastrophe? As the vocabulary of state aspirations becomes more ambitious, with political leaders promising almost every sort of fulfilled happiness, the capacity of states to deliver on these promises appears to become ever more suspect. A peaceful life, let alone a happy one, often seems more problematic than rhetoric suggests should be the case’ (p.9).

At the end of the book Patten tells us that his intention when he started to write it was ‘to demonstrate that nation states had to work together to cope effectively with the problems that crowd in on us all’. The point he ends up making is that ‘more effective domestic policies and better government at home are often needed to deal with global problems’ (p. 443). Three examples he gives are drugs (domestic policies in rich countries keep warlords in business in Afghanistan), epidemic diseases (breeding grounds in poor countries are sustained by inadequate public health facilities) and global financial crises (bad policies in individual nation states have effects that spread to other countries like an epidemic).

In my view there is another important example that Patten could have given of how domestic and foreign policy are frequently one and the same. This is particularly evident in international trade negotiations in which governments come together to talk about reducing trade barriers without any chance of achieving worthwhile outcomes because they are acting as the agents of the domestic interests which benefit from trade barriers. It is not possible for any government to take a sensible negotiating strategy to international negotiations unless it is supported by public understanding of the damage that its own trade barriers impose on its domestic economy.

However, I must be becoming a grumpy old man to complain that this book should have discussed any issue more thoroughly. This is one of the most perceptive books about global problems that I have ever read. The book shows that it is possible for a politician to acquire wisdom even though the incentives faced by people who choose that profession tend to work in the opposite direction.


Anonymous said...

Hi Winton,
Yes we need Governments, but sometimes I feel especially lately that they are starting to intrude in our personal lives. I certainly don't agree with this, nor do I want it.

I also don't think it's good for self regulation, it sounds good of course but in the long run I feel it would soon all fall apart.

Citizens need freedom to a certain extent, how far that freedom goes I think can became an issue.

I totally agree with you on Internationl trade.

Winton Bates said...

Yes Mags. We need government but we also need to constrain government. Perhaps the best way to do that is to elect governments that will promote self-regulation. I have the impression that the British Conservative Party was heading in that direction. It will be interesting to see if anything much actually happens as a result.