Government as consultation

Government as consultation: There are three clear avenues towards that end. The first great need of the modern State is adequately to organize institutions of consultation. The weakness of the present system, and one of the real roots of its irresponsibility, is that a government is compelled to consult, not an association which represents the interests affected by some statute, but those only whose protest against its action it chooses to deem important. If industry were given such a constitutional form as that here outlined, it would be possible to compel the prior consultation of authoritative bodies before any policy was given statutory form.

The advantages of such a method are obvious. It secures, in the first place, effective access to the government by the interests involved. Their wills, that is to say, at the least receive authoritative exposition. They are placed in a position where they can learn, in detail and in principle, the purpose a government has in view.

They are thereby enabled the more effectively to oppose or support such measures. They can appeal with the confidence of knowledge to opinion outside. They can seek from an assured basis to influence the supporters and opponents of the government in the legislature.

They can supply to the minister information of real value in the construction of the details of his measure. They can offer him suggestions as to its probable working They form, in brief, a deposit of expertise upon the different aspects of policy which, effectively used create an atmosphere of responsibility about governmental acts.

If the minister acts upon their opinion, he is at least building upon a foundation of experience, if he rejects them, the creation of an opposition and, as a consequence, of the discussion that is the life blood of democratic governance, is adequately assured.

The issue here at stake may perhaps be usefully stated in another way. The responsibility of modem governments is largely a subjective responsibility. The interpretation that prevails is not controlled in any organized way by the interests it directly affects.

Such control can only be introduced if those interests are given immediate institutional access to the seat of decision. A government which must summon advisory committees, which must place before those committees the policy it proposes to enforce, which listens to the criticism of men who are entitled to speak on behalf of organized associations, is in a very different position from a government which, as in the United States, remains in power for a fixed term, or, as in England, can threaten its supports  into acquiescence by the fear of a general election. It is not necessary to divide power in order to make it responsible, what is essential is to make coherent the organs of reference to which that power must defer.

For no government can have contact with bodies of men entitled to speak with authority and remain uninfluenced by their views. No member of a legislative assembly could learn that a government decision had awakened widespread expert dissent without feeling that an unconsidered vote was out of place. If informed public opinion is to surround the activities of the State, that opinion must be given channels through which it flows to the seat of power.

A letter to a journal, the publication of a pamphlet, the holding of a public meeting, are all, doubtless, useful methods of ventilating some special view, but they do not directly reach the will of government. They do not necessarily evoke that official duty to respond, that moral need to explain, which are the root of responsible action.

And the atmosphere of such advisory bodies is very different from that, for example, of a modern cabinet. There the minister must think of issues not necessarily connected with the public good. He must say, for instance, that he cannot adopt conscription because to do so is political suicide, where the inference is not that the advisability of conscription is the basic issue, but that the life of the government is itself the highest good.

In the cabinet the minister is driven to think of interests not necessarily coincident with the public welfare. He must keep in mind the need to preserve party unity, the knowledge that the resignation of a powerful colleague must be prevented the hundred queer shades of distracting occurrence which develop in personal relations. In an advisory committee of experts which has the character of a permanent institution these disturbing influences are absent.

The discussion is rooted in the principles of its subject personal considerations are, a prion out of place. The minister is dealing directly with minds and only indirectly with votes. He is being driven to counter reason with reason. He is being trained in responsibility to those whose desires must shape his will.

We shall later analyses the forms that such advisory institutions might reasonably assume. But it will be useful here to explain why the notion of leaving the government of the State to decide, and compelling it only to consult, seems preferable to the system either, as in guild socialism, of attaching power to a functional body, or, as in the German Economic Council, retaining the theory of advice, but building that theory into a single institution instead, as here urged, of attaching separate advisory organs to the different units of the government The difficulties of the guild theory are fourfold.

There is, in the first place, the fact that while it is practically possible to discover adequate units of consultation, it is practically impossible to discover practical units of government. And there is no reason to suppose, secondly, that a union of all guilds into a single functional body charged with the ultimate control of production would be superior in? character to, for example, the House of Commons Guild officials would tend, just as ministers tend, to become bureaucrat and conservative.

They would lose touch with their constituents in much the same way as now. There would be the same risks attaching to majority rule. Nor, as Mr. Cole seems to think, would any of ,this be remedied by the device of the recall. It is the plain lesson. We have of the experience of its working that it decreases the sense of responsibility in elected persons. It makes them more subordinate to interests that they believe to be powerful.

It sways their decisions through motives at least as inadequate as those upon which their present judgments based. It produces, as in the United States, a race of men who subordinate care for principle to the desire for place. Nor, in the third place, is there any way in which a distinction can be drawn between the area of the guild congress and the area of the territorial assembly.

The one which taxes persons will, sooner or later, dominate the other. If the division, fourthly, be made through the channels of judicial interpretation, on the one hand, the two bodies are a clumsy source of appointment, and, on the other, the judges become the ultimate repository of social power. It is surely the clearest inference from the history of the American Supreme Court that while judges are invaluable for saying what statutes mean, they do more harm than good when they determine whether statutes ought to be made. The latter office, in fact, is the replacement of the communal will by their own notions of social justice.

The objections to the German system rest upon considerations of a different kind. The Economic Council is a purely consultative body. It is barely three years old. It is yet already clear that its best work is done not on general, but on particular subjects, and, further, not in plenary session but in the intimate discussion of its various committees.

Its weaknesses lie in a variety of directions. Its initiatory power tends to lead it to multiply suggestions for legislation without having the responsibility to carry them into effect. It entails upon ministers a serious burden of extra labour. The need to appear and speak before it, the knowledge that its activity is  always encroaching upon the margins of the Reichstag’s competence, the satisfaction of its immeasurable appetite for documents and information, are rather a hindrance than a help to the channels of administration proper.

It seems clear that when a measure is sent to the Economic Council, the Proper committee can help the minister concerned by its Special knowledge. It does not equally appear that the Council as a whole performs this function. Its independent authority makes it appear, both to the ministers and their officials, at source of competition rather than an avenue of aid.

It does not, through the absence of parties, secure that consolidated unity of decision which is vital to the success of representative assemblies. It may be true, as Rathenau declared, that we need to emancipate ourselves from the principle of popular choice and move towards the principle of ability. But it is necessary to remember that in a democracy the ultimate principle is, after all, self-government and that means, in the last resort, that final decisions must be made by elected persons.

Where ability is required is in giving advice to the persons elected and in nine cases out of ten that advice needs to be special rather than general. It needs, that is, to be ability connected with a sphere of narrow competence, it does not gain by being congealed, with other expertise, into a unity that has no driving power. It is, moreover, notable that the debates in the plenary Economic Council tend to become eloquent expositions of class ideology rather than careful explorations of the formulae in dispute.

Nor should we omit the immense opportunity such a body opens to the growth of what the French call paperasserie. If the German Economic Council continues to increase the subjects of its attention at the present rate, a period will soon arrive when every department of the State will be driven to erect a special bureau merely to supply the information demanded by the different committees.

There is yet a limit to the number of officials any State can hope to afford and the area of investigation must surely have as its reasonable boundary direct contact with a policy related to the will of government. The present system multiplies projects most of which, like the bills in an American legislature, simply exist in a vacuum. What we require to make government responsibility real is the clarification of projects that are, or may immediately be, in legislative debate.

The territorial assembly built upon universal suffrage seems, therefore, the best method of making final decisions in the conflict of wills within the community. That assembly, it should be noted, could not, at least in theory, act in an irresponsible fashion. It would, in the first place, be the creature of electoral will and the more fully that electorate was informed, the more fully the legislature would respond to its desires.

It would, in the second, be subject to the need to consult the organized wills of the community before it acted upon them. Its executive would be responsible before the courts in exactly the same manner as any other citizens. If there is added to these controls decentralization both of area and of function there is secured as much as may legally be secured, of limitation upon political power.