The Rise Of The Bureaucrats

Written by:
17 September 2020
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Victorians seem to have accepted the need for their extended Covid lockdown, which has been the longest and harshest anywhere in the developed world. A Roy Morgan poll conducted by SMS across 8-9 September found continuing majority support for the curfew and movement restrictions. Premier Daniel Andrews enjoys a 70 per cent approval rating. Leaked internal polls from the opposition and leadership rumours last week have so far amounted to nothing. Overall, the government has enjoyed remarkable support.

Yet with a growing mental health crisis and an economic depression, you might have thought that the lockdown would be more controversial – especially given that this disaster is largely a product of the Victorian government’s incompetence, with 99 per cent of second-wave Covid cases being traceable to the quarantine hotels that it so badly mismanaged.

The support cannot simply be attributed to the high stakes involved. The virus is no more deadly to Victorians than to anyone else and the outbreak seen in Victoria is less severe than some that have been seen in comparable jurisdictions. Importantly, the costs of the lockdown can also be denominated in the loss of life and health, with evidence mounting that people are deferring healthcare and mental health issues are spiking. As noted by a group of more than 500 medical experts in an open letter to the government, other jurisdictions have assessed the trade-off differently and chosen different measures.

Moreover, governments around the country, including the federal government, enjoy high approval ratings in respect of the pandemic, regardless of the measures they have taken. So it is not just a Victorian phenomenon. There is something else going on.

One possible explanation is that a growing share of people work in the delivery of services that are provided or tightly controlled by the state. Over the past two generations, Victoria, like the country as a whole, has experienced structural economic change, with the share of workers in industry declining and the service sector rising. This is sometimes called a shift toward a ‘knowledge economy’. However, the economy’s new jobs are overwhelmingly in healthcare, social assistance, education, and public administration, rather than in the private, productive economy.

Since 1984, when ABS records begin, 27 per cent of new jobs in Victoria have been in knowledge economy fields, broadly defined, like professional services and finance. 40 per cent of new jobs have been in government-dominated services. 28 per cent of all jobs in Victoria are in these services.

Given how many of the professional services exist to ensure compliance with government regulation, it is clear the knowledge economy is really a bureaucracy economy.

The work of a large segment of the population mostly entails developing and implementing government policy, which they are accustomed to seeing as inherently reasonable. What they – and we – are told is that the test for reasonableness in policy is that it is created by a certain procedure. As long as the right people are consulted and the policy bears the correct stamp, the result is akin to science and therefore beyond debate.

Moreover, to this bureaucratic class, policy is reasonable because it is created by people like them. Having passed through various levels of formal education and been raised to believe that the collection of credentials is the mark of reasonableness and intelligence, this class of people suffers little self-doubt.

One might even speculate that the possibility a policy or a person could somehow be deficient in reason in spite of procedure is simply too horrific for the bureaucratic class to contemplate. Were it proven to be the case that Victoria’s lockdown policy has been unreasonable, it might strike at their very senses of self.

In any event, it is clear that the bureaucratic class has a narrow view of policymaking and an instinctive deference to government policy. It is narrow because technical expertise does not translate across domains. The lockdown, for example, is supposedly a public health policy and therefore a product of public health expertise. It has been ruinous for the economy, but that reality lies outside the purview of the technocrats in charge. Worse, this deference is not even to expertise as such – just ask those 500 experts whose pleas went unheeded. It is deference to what is merely official.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the opposition to the lockdown that does exist tends to come from people who live in the other economy: small businesses, independent contractors and young and casual workers. These people still live by results and not just by procedures, and the results of the lockdown they see in their own lives are grim: shuttered businesses, shattered dreams and broken homes. In normal times, they have little invested in the reasonableness of regulation and so now they can see the incompetence and dishonesty of the government for what it is.

This yeoman class lacks representation. It has been notable, and predictable, that the trade union movement has thrown its weight behind the lockdown. It now only represents the bureaucrats. But neither side of politics seems entirely comfortable speaking for the interests of mainstream Australians in the private economy and the values that guide them, almost certainly because, for the politicians as for the economy as a whole, professionalisation has mostly meant bureaucratisation. Throughout the pandemic, politicians have seemed to hide behind their public health officials, but the truth may be worse. It might simply be unthinkable to them that the bureaucracy they oversee could ever be wrong.

The cultural force exerted by the rise of the bureaucratic class is most visible in Victoria because the gap between the government’s support and performance is so large and so galling. But if it is right that deference to expert rule is, in part, a product of the restructuring of the economy towards bureaucracy, then note well that the same dynamic exists across the country. All else being equal, other states will suffer the loss of their way of life just as gladly as Victorians, so long as the right people in white coats tell them it is necessary to do so.

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