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The Logic - and the Illogic - of Discipline

Sina Odugbemi's picture

An important new book tells the story of a  tradition of governance reform. The book is The Logic of Discipline: Global Capitalism and the Structure of Government. The author is Alasdair Roberts, the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School.

According to Roberts:

"The logic of discipline is a reform philosophy built on the criticism that standard democratic processes for producing policies are myopic, unstable, and skewed towards  special interests and not the public good. It attempts to make improvements in governance through changes in law that impose constraints on elected officials and citizens, often by shifting power to technocrat-guardians who are shielded from political influence." (p. 135).

Roberts' book is an analysis of six areas of government that have been subjected to this treatment in several parts of the world in the last three decades:

  1. The efforts to make Central Banks independent of both elected officials and public opinion.
  2. The trend towards making Treasury Departments or Finance Ministries powerful and able to impose fiscal discipline, with as little political control as possible.
  3. The rush to create Autonomous Revenue Authorities, again outside political control.
  4. The development of independent 'mainports', whether airports or seaports, again by keeping local politicians and citizens out of the big development decisions.
  5. The evolution and spread of independent regulatory agencies and supercourts (especially international arbitration bodies for the settlement of investment disputes).
  6. The trend towards using Long-term Infrastructure Contracts to avoid the vagaries of domestic politics in specific countries.


In all these instances, the idea was to take key decisions outside the democratic process in each country in order to "promote the virtues of farsightedness, consistency, and public-spiritedness". (p. 147) By the way, one of the great virtues of Roberts' book is that it is an illuminating study of the diffusion of innovations in the area of governance. You see how these ideas, no matter how dangerous they are, spread; in particular, it is striking how they spread before the evidence of impact is in.

There are at least  two problems with this tradition of governance reform. The first is philosophical. As any student of Plato's The Republic  will know, once you take certain policy decisions outside democratic control and put them into the hands of technocrat-guardians (Rule By Experts!), the question becomes: Who guards the guardians? Are experts angels or paragons of virtue? Certainly not. Roberts' analysis demonstrates that they are not above and beyond greed  or capture by special interests.

The second problem is a practical one. Can you really take these huge chunks of governance and take them outside domestic politics and the power of public opinion? Well, it turns out that you cannot really do that. And for me that is the real value of The Logic of Discipline. It shows beyond reasonable doubt that politics will always intrude, that mobilized public opinion will crash through the sanctuaries of technocrat-guardians. In each segment of the story, you see how politicians and citizens fought their way back into the policy process. The lesson: you don't do reforms in a greenhouse but in the messy real world of citizens, stakeholders, public opinion, power politics and so on.

So, what is to be done? I prefer not to steal the author's thunder. In any event, I cannot match his eloquence on the subject. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.

So long!