Sean Moncrieff: ‘If we expect government to be crap, we’ll get exactly what we expect’

Working for the state doesn’t suddenly render you genetically incapable of being efficient

The Dáil chamber. “It’s difficult to fault the National Development Plan for ambition. So wouldn’t it be nice if that ambition ran to improving how our government works for us?” Photograph: Michael Quinn

The Dáil chamber. “It’s difficult to fault the National Development Plan for ambition. So wouldn’t it be nice if that ambition ran to improving how our government works for us?” Photograph: Michael Quinn

 

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Thus spake Ronald Reagan in 1986. The line got huge LOLs at the time and the sentiment behind it has since hardened into a biblical truth. Government is bureaucratic, self-serving and often incompetent. Government – permanent or elected – will ‘help’ by squandering your tax money.

Reagan went on to spend more than his supposedly profligate predecessors, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Nonetheless, there’s hardly a country in the western world that doesn’t now subscribe to a variant of his idea.

It bleeds into our political discussions too, usually in the Michael O’Leary-should-be-taoiseach trope, while the private sector deifies itself: entrepreneurs aren’t business people, they are risk-takers, disrupters, visionaries. They are Jesus, armed with a bank loan. No mention – ever – of how (private-sector) banks nearly bankrupted this country.

Thus all too often, the politicians we elect to make the country better, get elected on the basis that they can’t make the country better. The idea of improving how government works so that it can help people seems to be an unspeakable notion.

But they know some people who can. Rather like those arse-numbing summer blockbuster movies, government and the private sector can combine their superpowers to save the planet.

Now that Leo Varadkar has unveiled his massive 2040 development/re-election plan, the private sector will no doubt rush in to make the Taoiseach’s fevered dreams a reality.

Let’s dump the codology of trickle-down economics: ain’t no such thing. Inequality increased during the boom. The rising tide drowned some people

In fairness, you can see the logic: government – permanent and elected – can be bureaucratic and self-serving. Civil servants have far less to lose if a project goes horribly wrong. For a private company it can have existential consequences, so it’s motivated to make sure that everything runs to plan and budget.

Broadband fiasco

At least that’s the theory. Yet as the recent (but quickly forgotten) Eir/broadband fiasco demonstrated, the private sector doesn’t want to play when conditions don’t suit the singular aim of making as much money as possible.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s what business does; what it’s supposed to do. However, it underlines the philosophical contradiction at the heart of public-private partnerships. Government, as the expression of our collective will, aims to make things better for everyone – to create a fairer and more equal society.

Business, as an expression of capitalism, has the opposite aim. Let’s dump the codology of trickle-down economics: ain’t no such thing. Inequality increased during the boom. The rising tide drowned some people. Inequality is one of the primary by-products of capitalism. Capitalism creates wealth. For capitalists.

And it does this by going where the money is. That’s why so many parts of the country don’t have decent broadband. That’s why we have a housing crisis.

Yet generations in this country grew up in homes built by the State. Until the State gave up on it. It might be difficult to do this again, but it is possible; and it’s interesting that Leo’s plan will involve many State-owned enterprises. It is possible for the State to be involved in rolling out broadband.

And yes: Irish Water, blah, blah. There have been disasters.

But working for the State or a State-owned body doesn’t suddenly render you genetically incapable of being efficient: what does is the facile, defeatist and infantilising “they’re all the same” attitude.

No doubt there will be rows about the details, (for instance: it doesn’t mention poverty) but it’s difficult to fault the National Development Plan for ambition. So wouldn’t it be nice if that ambition ran to improving how our government works for us? If that was an ambition we all shared?

If they, and us, just expect government to be crap, well: we’ll get exactly what we expect.

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