First Chapter: Nation of Devils by Stein Ringen

Below is the first chapter from Oxford Professor Stein Ringen’s latest book, Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience. It is the first post in an occasional series highlighting the first chapters of recent books by speakers and participants in the Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series. Ringen spoke at the Ash Center on October 30 on the leadership challenges that presidents and prime ministers face. Foreshadowing the recent debacle around the federal health insurance website, he argued that legislation and policy-making is relatively straightforward compared to the arduous tasks of implementing that law and policy.

nation of devilsIn this chapter Ringen sets a philosophical tone and gets into the role of president or prime minister which he assumes for the rest of the book. ‘I identify with “the governor” and want him or her to succeed.’ To that end, Ringen identifies the core challenges leaders face in governing. The primary challenge, implementation, is made most difficult by the need to rule and manage antagonists—both reluctant civil servants and the broader public. Ringen argues that to secure willing cooperation or inspire obligation among these antagonists—to resolve the confrontation ‘between the governed and the governor’—is more sustainable than resolution by force. Ringen introduces several leadership challenges or themes, including the need for functioning institutions, globalization’s elevation of economic power at the expense of political power, and an unhealthy political culture. In the United States, he writes, our political culture is best characterized by what it is missing: trust and confidence in government, a ‘sense of shared destiny,’ public deliberation over the public interest, respect for politicians and politics, and media platforms through which to discuss big issues.

Many thanks to Yale University Press for allowing us to re-print this chapter in its entirety. Readers who enjoy this chapter should consider reading the whole book, which can be purchased online here.


The Powerlessness of Powerful Government


. . . he finds himself surrounded by many who believe they are his equals, and because of that he cannot command or manage them the way he wants.
–Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter 9


“If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.” So said Max Weber, the greatest of German political thinkers, in a famous lecture at Munich University in 1919 under the title “Politik als Beruf.” That might seem cynical, like a eulogy for dictatorship, but it is nothing of the kind. Serious governments want to rule. But also their populations want them to rule, to rule appropriately, of course, but therefore clearly to rule. Hence, in the American Declaration of Independence, “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” We citizens want rule because we need rule for order, fairness and protection. We need to hold the tyranny of government at bay but we also want, in our own interest, our governments to defeat our tyranny over them. The problem, then, is obedience.

The Public Good
Macho men want the government off their backs but are dead wrong, as the bankers of the world learned after 2007 when the cost in money and esteem of radical deregulation caught up with them. When people live in society, it is government that prevents them from falling into the war of all against all that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed was the natural state of affairs, and it is government that makes it possible for us to live lives that are useful for ourselves and others. The painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti gave this knowledge life in fourteenth-century Italy with his frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, where he created allegories of good government with happy people building their future in a city of order and of bad government with idle people in a crumbling world. The Norwegian Johan Boyer, in The Last Viking, his early twentieth-century epic of the winter fisheries in northern Norway in the age of sail, saw the magic at work where life is raw. A fjord is teeming with fish, the fishermen scramble for a take in the bounty, a minor civil war breaks out until the regulator arrives and restores order: linesmen in that part of the fjord, netsmen in the other. “A thousand men were transformed from animals to human beings again.” On today’s testing ground for progress, in Africa, the economist Paul Collier, in The Bottom Billion, sees a near perfect correlation: where government works, the economy works, and where the economy works there is government at work.

No wonder Aristotle praised “he who first founded the state [as] the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.”

In his first inaugural address, at the birth of the American republic, President George Washington defined the job of government as “the discernment and pursuit of the public good.” Citizens left to their own devices are interested in their various little private goods, and at each other’s throats. Governments are instituted to cut through that chaos and create a new reality that is public. They must discern: the public good must be defined, explained and made accepted. They must pursue: the dominated must be made to obey, preferably by being made to want to obey.

Governments must get two things done. They must make policy and they must put their policies to work in society. S. E. Finer, in The History of Government, calls it decision making and decision implementing. In political reporting in the press, “politics” is almost always about the making of policy, as it is in a great deal of writing in political science. The government is victorious when it is able to get its programme enacted and it loses when the opposition is able to defeat it. Well and good, those are tricky problems–but not the endgame problems. In making policy work, the challenge is just as much or more in implementation. Decisions are everything for the members of the political class, but for society they are nothing unless they are implemented.

For example, on the 13th of February 2009, the United States Congress approved President Barack Obama’s near $800 billion economic stimulus package. That was only two weeks after his inauguration and was, rightly, seen as a great victory. However, the money thereby allocated was supposed to flow through to hundreds of projects around the country in infrastructural investments, schools, employment, social security, health care and much more. The decision by Congress on that day was only to make the money available. What would flow through was yet to be seen.

An indication of some of what might happen was by coincidence on display in the Helsinki newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet in Finland the very next day. The Finnish government had launched its own stimulus package a few months earlier. A review by the paper revealed that in at least some areas very little of what was intended had reached its objective. For reasons of legal wrangling and logistical problems, intended credits to businesses through a government loans agency were being held up, as was intended support to local municipalities through another government agency to stimulate housing construction.

President Obama’s package was inspired in part by the initiatives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, but Roosevelt did much more than to get money allocated. In his first one hundred days he not only summoned Congress and kept it working in emergency session to push through fifty major recovery laws, but also followed up by creating a raft of new government agencies to carry allocated money into projects in the real economy. In 2009, it took less than a week after Congress had approved the spending for reporting to emerge in the press about difficulties of implementation. Political posts remained unfilled in the new administration, and political leadership was not in place in several cabinet departments and lower-level agencies, including the Treasury, the result being a danger of at least delays in the implementation of policies that were seen to be urgent. Congress earmarked at least $20 billion for energy efficiency projects in towns and cities across the country, which would have to be carried out by local agencies that had few plans in place and were without experience of or capacity for projects on the necessary scale. President Obama had won a victory in Congress, but the significance for American society of that victory would depend on the administration’s ability to practically get the money put to use. A year later, the president’s popularity had collapsed, in part because of a widespread perception in the country that a great deal of his stimulus money had been siphoned off for pork-barrel projects with little or no relevance for economic recovery. And on the effects of the stimulus package for the economy, and how its multiple projects unfolded, the jury is still out.

Likewise in Britain. In late 2011, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, tempered his austerity with some public works plans to stimulate economic activity and growth. But half a year on, referring to “squabbling” and “plans left to gather dust on desks,” the director general of the Confederation of Business Industries, John Cridland, “strongly criticised the government for the ‘really disappointing’ implementation of its growth plans, asking: ‘Where are the diggers on the ground.’”

Whenever anyone wants to rule or lead, it is others they must manage–that amorphous mass of people who must obey but are inclined not to. That is a fact of life in the running of businesses as well as the governing of countries. For governance, it is a fact in democracies as in autocracies. Always, the craft of governing is about winning over reluctant and sometimes hostile others to not frustrating, and sometimes even to supporting, your intentions. President Harry Truman knew this when he handed power to his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and predicted, not without schadenfreude: “Poor Ike. He’ll sit right here, and he’ll say do this, do that!! And nothing will happen–it won’t be a bit like the army.” Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff, remembers how Blair’s term in office started: “A new prime minister pulls all the levers of power and nothing happens.” Rule has everything to do with those, from a government’s point of view, confounded others.

Why is that? Charles Lindblom, the eminent political scientist, has put it succinctly: “Many people constantly try to change the social world. An explanation of their failure more plausible than that of inertia is to be found in the great number of other people who are vigorously trying to frustrate social change.”

Governors bring burdens down upon the governed, principally taxes and regulations. Therefore, the governed dislike what their governors impose on them. Therefore, they are looking for excuses to persuade themselves that they are entitled to disregard the will of those they for their own psychological gratification call “the politicians.” Therefore, aspiring leaders must deny them reasons for refusing to make themselves followers.

It takes a lot. It is no good, said the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his attempt at a treaty for perpetual peace, to assume that people are angels. We need institutions that can maintain order in a nation of devils. Institutions are of various kinds, such as rules and culture. Good rules control devils. Good cultures make it difficult for people to be devils. There must be control and there is no reason to be romantic about it: there are devils aplenty, small and large, and leaders need to manage them.

But not everything and everyone can always be controlled. “Rule, to last,” observes Henry Kissinger, speaking of China, “needs to translate force into obligation.” At the height of the debate over bank reform in Britain following the recession of 2008, the head of C. Hoare, the country’s most eccentric (and highly profitable) old-school bank, said: “We have had this massive scare, but what was the cause? A lack of moral compass and a lack of understanding of the nature of debt and civic responsibility. Changing capital ratios will not change that.” There needs to be an acceptance in people’s minds, and in the way they see each other, of the validity of order. There needs to be understanding. Let’s be straight about it: there needs to be some morality and some shared sense of the moral in the cultural fabric we live within. For Kant, those institutions that can control devils are possible even among non-angels, but only if they have the intelligence to understand that “public conduct” requires that they check each other. Carl Schmitt, a legal scholar in Weimar Germany (whose reputation as a political thinker survived his later allegiance to Nazism), writing nearly a century ago, saw democracy somewhat mysteriously as a matter of shared identity between the rulers and the ruled which was possible only “for a people who really think democratically.” Forty years ago, when there was fear that democracy might crumble under the competition from authoritarianism, the Trilateral Commission asked Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington and Joji Watanuki to analyse the possible “crisis of democracy.” Their report was conditionally optimistic. “Democracies can work provided their publics truly understand the nature of the democratic system, and particularly if they are sensitive to the subtle interrelationship between liberty and responsibility.”

Some countries have found their way to a habit of leaders governing well and followers cooperating willingly. There is, in the language of Samuel Huntingdon and Francis Fukuyama, political order. But that apparent simplicity is deceptive. Under the surface is a rough confrontation between instinctive antagonists, between the governed and the governors. Only some countries, at some times, have the good fortune that the confrontation has been resolved. We could call it a covenant, or a contract, but that’s a bit grand. It’s more of a deal, or better still a settlement, a settlement of order.

The modern study of democracy was inaugurated by the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville in his observations in Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. He found much to admire, in particular in his first volume. He found a settled confrontation. The American Constitution gives representatives the power they need to govern but also restrains that power in a system of checks and balances. Citizens were enmeshed in networks of associations that reduced their dependency on the state. The represented could trust their state to be benevolent.

But in his second and more pessimistic volume, he also found that an established settlement could disintegrate into what he called “soft despotism”: a creeping erosion of freedom within a shell of democratic formality, which citizens allow to fester out of greed and indifference, gradually and hardly perceptively.

The American settlement was soon not only to disintegrate but to collapse into civil war when the destructive force of slavery in the republic of equality could no longer be contained. Whether a new settlement was found is debatable, but President Franklin Roosevelt’s reforms could be seen as a quest. If that succeeded for a while, as it appeared during the Eisenhower presidency, it again collapsed under the strains of the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement at home. These influences have not yet been resettled, and to that we must now add to the American scene, as we will see, a fair dose of Tocquevillian soft despotism.

Workable or Not
Democracies are normal or dysfunctional. In normal systems, the machinery churns on to the making and implementation of policy. It’s like a normal car. It may have some scratches but you assume that the steering works so that you can set off and drive without lurching into the ditch. When a leader takes up office in a normal democracy, he or she can take it that the country is reasonably governable. We should take care not to ask for perfection, which is not available and the aspiration to which is self-defeating and destructive, but we should ask for and expect workability. Most democracies are in this meaning normal–which is why democracy has prospered, advanced and outdone the competition.

In dysfunctional systems, the machinery is defunct and good government not available, either because necessary decisions do not get made or, if made, are not implementable. In the next chapter, we will see how New Labour in Britain was given all the power a democratic government could dream of but that “a strong government was defeated by a weak system of governance.” In America, Barack Obama fought a brilliant election campaign in 2008 and came to power as the most attractive leader since Ronald Reagan. But when he settled into office thinking that Washington could be made to work according to the textbook, he was overwhelmed by vicious subversion. Good government depends on a combination of functional institutions and competent leadership. If institutions are dysfunctional, no competence can save the day. But also, functional institutions are only a necessary condition and never a sufficient one. There is still the problem of obedience.

This defines the two ways that governments can fail: in a normal democracy if they are unable to work the system and in a dysfunctional one because the system is unworkable. This also corresponds to my two aims in this book, to speak to leaders about how to lead when the system is workable and how to reform when it is not. Leadership I’m able to discuss in general terms, but reform needs more specific context, which I find in the cases of America and Britain.
So this is a book of two parts: an essay about rule into which is inserted a treatise on misrule in America and Britain.

I start with normal democracies in mind and stay in that mindset for a good deal of time until I get properly back to the problem of obedience in Chapters 8 and 9, and zoom in on the cases of the United States and Britain, where the comfort of normality gradually breaks down.

The American Predicament
I introduce one of those cases, Britain, in the next chapter, but not the other one, the United States. That case emerges gradually until it takes centre stage in the last chapters. In fact, however, it is present all the way, if at first quietly. America has declined to the model dysfunctional democracy. I want to understand why. That evolves around the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, around trust, leadership, authority, settlement–finally around political culture. This–culture–is another theme which emerges gradually until, like the American case, it becomes the theme. In many democracies now, but in America in particular, a profound distrust in politics has taken hold so that the foundations of good government are eroding or have eroded. Inequalities at shocking levels are allowed to fester, even celebrated. That great American engine of progress, social mobility, is grinding to a halt. Most people are excluded from the benefits of economic advancement. The have-mores are allowed to buy political influence at the expense of democracy, leaving the have-lesses with no reason to believe that public policy might be for their good. The population is divided into “them” and “us” who live in different worlds. There is no sense of shared destiny and no shared deliberation about what is and should be common and public. The very idea of government as an instrument of good is challenged, perhaps abandoned. Being a politician is disreputable and contempt of politics a free-for-all. The press, with its 24/7 schedule, hounds leaders away from their business of ruling and has in large measure made itself partisan and aggressive, to the neglect of its duty of information and of providing an arena for the big conversation. It is common sense that decision making in the American system is heavy going, but the predicament now is that dysfunction goes all the way to the foundations, to the political culture. This is new. The challenge now, therefore, is not so much about this or that reform as about the capacity for reform altogether and about escaping entrenched governmental gridlock. That is the difficult problem I land myself with toward the end of this essay. I deal with it as a matter of cultural revolution. I reach back to the progressive tradition in American history, only recently interrupted. I turn to the president (the presidency being the remaining functional institution) and recommend that he reconnects with that tradition and pulls the American people into a soul-searching exercise in deliberation over their union, social and political, and their democracy and government. It is a matter of repairing a fractured culture so that there might be hope that settlement, political order and good government could be restored.

Some Assumptions
Obviously, I set out on this journey with a baggage of ideas and assumptions, and it might be helpful to lay out what some of them are.

On human nature. I go by an understanding of humanity that is inspired by Aristotle. Human beings have the potential for nobility but are not noble by instinct. They need what I have elsewhere called “social anchorage.” They need to be trained, supported and guided. They need to be governed. It is not in isolation but in togetherness that we can realise our potential. Human beings are stable, they are as they are and good enough. Institutions differ, those influences that train, support and guide. The public good is realised in the building and nurturing of institutions that guide each of us toward the realisation of our noble potential.

On democracy. Democracy is a method more than a purpose. The arguments for democratic government are two: that it, being under popular control, should protect citizens against oppression, and, that it being by consent, should be effective. It is not enough for a democracy to be democratic and no democracy should be lauded for just being a democracy. If it can’t be effective it will decline democratically as well.

On participation. Participation is like motherhood: one cannot be against it. But it is a slippery idea. If it means giving citizens a share in day-to-day decision making, for example through intensive use of referendums and the like, then, sad is it may be, participation from below is not conducive to good government. It gives leaders too little power to dominate followers and others too much power to subvert governors. Hard libertarians and soft advocates of participatory democracy have in common that they believe people to be instinctively of sound and rational character and judgement. But they are not, which is why leadership from above is the essence. Citizens are best served by delegating decision making to representatives. On the other hand, if governors are to get their doings accepted, they need to involve citizens so that they feel they are not being treated arbitrarily or in a dictatorial manner. This is a different form of participation–I prefer to think about it as deliberation–in which governors pull citizens into their orbit, or co-opt them. Needless to say, participation in this meaning is separated from manipulation by a very thin line.

On governing. I identify with “the governor” and want him or her to succeed. I want those of us who reflect on democracy to think more about effectiveness than we have been inclined to. When democratic government is challenged, it is the inability to deliver that makes the challenge credible and dangerous. This way of looking at it reduces somewhat the presence of “the people.” My excuse for thus looking down upon the people from up high is that it is in their (our) interest that they (we) are governed. Governance is a getting-done contest, not a beauty contest.

On governance. Some political scientists (in the “new governance” literature) believe that governance has become more complex than it was in simpler olden times and that contemporary democratic governments are increasingly constrained in the options available to them. Understanding governance, then, is a matter more of observing the environment governments work within than how they operate. This is a case of the more things change, the more they are the same. If you think governance in the age of bureaucracy is complex, spare a thought for medieval kings and their courts. Governments have always–read Finer’s History of Government–struggled with making things happen. On this, nothing has changed and there is no new complexity. In the next chapter, I introduce two case studies, one government that had everything against it and succeeded and one that had everything for it and failed–in both cases by the way they operated. I defend the old-fashioned view that governance is a craft that some master and others don’t (wherefore I also defend the old-fashioned method of working through examples of leaders exercising that craft). However, there are also new realities of constraint. One such influence, which I will return to, is from economic globalisation. Political power is up against economic power. Globalisation benefits economic power to the detriment of political power and has increased the capacity of those who control capital to constrain government action. That’s a more difficult environment for governments, and in some ways a recent one. But it is different by down-to-earth changing power relations more than new-fangled “complexity.” What makes for dysfunction is too much power where it should not be, in the hands of those whose interest is in disobedience, and too little where it should be, in the hands of governors. Reform in dysfunctional democracies is about shutting out unwanted power more than about straightening out complexities.

On writing political science. I start from straight and simple questions: What is a government? What do governments do? How can they get it right? I want my answers to be in the same spirit. To that end, I will observe governance as a matter of persons acting and reacting. Governments consist of many things and we need to pick them apart. Basically, they consist of people. A government is a group of persons–we usually call them ministers, and sometimes I call them governors, meaning those who (supposedly) govern. A bureaucracy is made up of persons–we usually call them officials. A nation is made up of persons–we usually call them citizens. The problem with the analysis of “systems” is that people tend to disappear except as collectives and masses. As so often, I follow Max Weber: “Concepts such as ‘state,’ ‘associations,’ ‘feudalism,’ and the like designate certain categories of human interaction. Hence it is the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to ‘understandable’ action, that is, without exception, to the actions of participating individual men.” I will sometimes engage with writings that approach it differently, as need dictates, and sometimes not when I feel I don’t have to. My sorrow is that, however I have tried, I have not been able to make this book shorter than it is.

Excerpted from Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience by Stein Ringen. Copyright © 2013 by Stein Ringen. Published by Yale University Press.

You can purchase the book online here.

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