Professor Alasdair Roberts, the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School in Massachusetts, opens his book with a quotation from Plato, who opined: "These guardians of our state, inasmuch as their work is the most important of all, will need the most complete freedom from other occupations and the greatest amount of skill and practice." In the aftermath of the financial crisis, concerned citizens are questioning what really occurred to our guardians, and whether they actually exercised the skills to serve the public good.
To better understand what the world is experiencing — legalised thievery in the name of the public good — Roberts' eminently readable book proposes to examine the very idea of public reforms during the past three decades. In fact, he scrutinises the era of economic liberalisation from 1978 to 2008, when governments dismantled themselves under free-market pressures, and argues that "government" as an institution was reconstructed to meet fresh needs that purported to serve a nascent globalised economy. No longer were industrialised economies simply looking after their own but, increasingly, seeking to facilitate life to emerging multinational corporations (MNCs).
To better serve MNCs, fresh laws were written to empower central bankers to accommodate "investors", which often required lifting fiscal controls, including creating opportunities to enjoy tax-free incomes in so-called offshore havens. Regulations and tax collection mechanisms were altered to further assist those who, presumably, invested in major infrastructure developments such as ports and airports that, in turn, better facilitated free trade. The list is quite long. but Roberts masterfully illustrates that in just about every area that ushered in radical reforms, the very architecture of government — that was supposed to serve people — was dramatically changed.
Who were responsible for these changes? Many leaders, of course, including American president Ronald Reagan, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping, followed soon by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, to name just a few from both the artificial right-left categories that were entirely irrelevant where it mattered most.
What all of these men and women, along with acolytes and minions, required was to espouse a simple philosophy: to execute reforms by following an impeccable discipline. In fact, according to the author, to practice the logic of discipline. The latter was premised on deep scepticism about the ability of democratic processes to make sensible policy choices that, without exaggeration, necessitated such matters be seldom left to ordinary citizens to decide in relatively free societies. In totalitarian regimes, no one bothered to ask.
Rather, the "logic" sought to impose constraints on elected officials and citizens, often by shifting power to technocrat-guardians shielded from political influence. It placed great faith in the power of legal changes — new laws, treaties, and contracts — to produce significant alterations in the performance of governmental systems. In short, it was essential to distance globalised economic performances from constitutionalism, displaying open preferences for populist democracies that could be "disciplined" through masterful manipulations. Governing elites became distant from masses and popular sovereignty thrived on distrust of governments. Regrettably, powerful entities assumed that legal shenanigans would preserve freedoms and democracy in general, seldom questioning the putative harm that they imposed, even if inadvertently.
Therefore, and even before the global economic crisis of 2007-2009 — which will probably take a generation to address and correct — the logic of discipline came under assault and rightly so. Faced with many failed reform projects, advocates of discipline realised that they had underestimated the complexity of governmental change. Opponents of discipline emphasised the damage to democratic values, which was not incorrect, since that process followed from the empowerment of new groups of technocrat-guardians.
Human rights groups, non-governmental organisations and micro-finance institutions, all of which extended a hand to the downtrodden, gradually confronted soulless multinational corporations, hungry financial institutions, and irresponsible mega ventures.
Sadly, George W. Bush's presidency created the perfect incubator for the global financial crisis that, we can now conclude, damaged everyone's interests save those of the "one per cent". The logic of discipline withered, as beholden governments — that mercifully still functioned in democracies — modified their attitudes about central bank independence and fiscal controls. Consequently, global financial and trade flows declined, with markets behaving "myopically and erratically, and which now insisted that governments should abandon precepts about the role of government that it had once insisted were inviolable".
Professor Roberts' account of neo-liberal governmental restructuring across the world is dense reading but a reader who wishes to understand what is being done to us must plough through The Logic of Discipline with courage. If for no other reason than to never again allow "markets" to determine the fate of mankind, opting for Plato's skilful guardians instead.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2012).
The Logic of Discipline: Global Capitalism and the Architecture of Government By Alasdair Roberts,Oxford University Press, 201 pages, $24.95