Friday, July 03, 2009

On measures of success

Douglas Bell's latest post is definitely worth a read in pointing out the perverse effects when power is put in the hands of anti-government parties. And it's true enough that a right-wing regime can effectively succeed in its long-term ideological goals by failing miserably as a government: every time it spends money recklessly, lies to the public, or puts its own interests ahead of those of the people it governs, it only helps to build a longer-term narrative that the public sector generally shouldn't be given any room to operate.

But it's worth noting the flip side to that, in that it's also impossible for that type of government to succeed completely in their goals or to maintain much of a shelf life.

As a general rule, the anti-government crowd is only able to take power when combined with a good-government message directed at perceived misuse of resources by a competing party. And while it all too often takes a term or two for that coalition to unravel after the former group takes over in power, it's essentially inevitable that those who restraint and good government will eventually find its way into another camp as a result of the abuses which inevitably flow from a party which thinks that if government can't do any good anyway, it had might as well use the public purse for its own ends. And that goes particularly once the previous concerns about another party become a thing of the past.

What if the good-governance crowd manages to take control? The obvious answer to that is that we'll deal with it if it ever happens, which seldom seems to be the case. But the tension would seem to be just as strong there. A responsible-government focus would prevent the governing party from carrying out the selloffs and giveaways that the wrecking crew wants to see - resulting in inevitable challenges from the right, either within the party or from the outside.

So while the government-bashing crowd can succeed in part by failing to govern competently, it also fails in part if it happens to succeed from a governance standpoint.

In contrast, a progressive government has every incentive to keep those concerned with good government on side while in power. When the goal is to build sustainable structures rather than destroy them, it's a necessary step to make sure that whatever is built can hold up over an extended period of time and succeed in its stated ends. Which means that while there may be some tension as to how quickly to move on priorities, there's no inherent conflict between left-wing governance and accountability movements.

Of course, a right-wing party in opposition will naturally go back to picking at the actual money spent by the governing party, and eventually find some success doing it. Which is why any progressive government isn't any more likely than its conservative counterpart to survive more than a few terms in all but the most extreme cases.

But at the very least, a progressive government's natural goal of developing confidence in public institutions isn't hampered by the kinds of internal contradictions that plague any right-wing coalition which takes control of a structure which it abhors. Which is why a progressive vision and a good-governance model can be as potent a combination as they form over the long term.

(As an aside, the downside of Bell's post is that he sadly perpetuates at least one fairly glaring evidence-free assertion, classifying Michael Ignatieff as a "progressive" even while pointing out that Iggy has scrupulously avoided actually presenting any policy which could merit the title.

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