Saturday, March 19, 2005

Managerialism

Stumbling and Mumbling, which is generally quite good, has a recurrent trope about managerialism in contemporary politics, where what is meant by managerialism is a kind of Weberian rationalization, a giving up on asking big, important moral questions in favour of a bureaucratic concern with ensuring efficiency. This kind of critique of a demystified modernity, in some form, has been a recurrent feature of conservative-inclined attacks on the Enlightenment since Hegel, and while I'm skeptical about it as a blanket statement, it certainly has a long and intellectually respectable history.

What's interesting is that in the forms in which I have come across it, most notably in Alasdair MacIntyre's 'After Virtue', but also in Hegel, Arendt and to some extent Weber, is that one of the prime targets of the managerialist critique is positive social science, and economics in particular, which, the critique alleges, reduces all actions to a lowest common denominator of bare preference, and seeks to organize social interactions to maximize efficiency. To resort to pop culture reference, as Radiohead put it, it 'talks in maths and buzzes like a fridge': economics, like the utilitarianism which breeds it - the same reduction to bare preference and concern with satisfaction, after all - is morally empty. MacIntyre, for example, assails modernity's managerialist tendencies by launching into a critique of positive social science, a critique which I have no little sympathy for, which most definitely targets economics.

The irony here is that the author of Stumbling and Mumbling is an economist, who advocates using strongly positivist economic models as a more or less sole basis for public policy, which must be one of the ultimate managerial sins. For example, in their critique of a New Scientist piece by the government's chief scientific advisor, the references to the absence of incentives and to the free market as the only possible basis for economic growth (and presumably, an unquestionned assumption that economic growth is a necessary good) seem to me to be classically managerial, in the critical sense of the anti-Enlightenment theorists mentioned. Weber in particular talks about the ossification of rules, either in social science or bureaucratic institutions, as both the first symptom and the most serious problem of the rationalization of the world and its subsequent lapse into managerialism, yet the free market is one of the most rule-bound, in the sense of exception-less generalizations, institutions imaginable: inviolable property rights, the relations between them becoming inreasingly the only public mode of interaction, the invisible hand driving inexorably towards equilibrium and so on. So, a question: is the free market managerial in this sense, and if so, why not?

Postscript: Stumbling and Mumbling has a reply here

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