Book Review: Government for the Public Good: The Surprising Science of Large-Scale Action, by Max Rashbrooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_government_fo_the_public_goodMax Rashbrooke’s book is an analysis of what good government would like if it was essentially based on policy analysis, rather than being determined by an overriding ideology. Governing in the ‘public good’ and utilising ‘large-scale action’ could be seen as the same old 20th Century formula for imposing big government. So it obviously goes against the prevailing economic ideology labelled as ‘neo-liberalism’.

Of course, ‘neo-liberalism’ was a term adopted by the academic critics, so what Rashbrooke has done is distil the views of mostly academic writers who have been analysing why right wing policy prescriptions have failed, with regard to what they discern as the ‘public good’. However, it is not clear why the book is subtitled the ‘surprising science’ of large-scale policy action: it is not really surprising that there has been a lot of analysis of activist government policy by other social scientists, if not economists; and also not surprising that the evidence supports collective action.

If it were just a matter of ‘bring the State back in’, then this has already been done, with a well known American academic using the exact phrase for a book title long ago. Rashbrooke proceeds by looking at the evidence about the ‘strange half-death of government’ in the Western world. He is mainly concerned with what he calls the Anglosphere, or English-speaking countries, which are apparently the key examples of the neoliberal philosophy and market-based solutions. Rashbrooke then suggests a new model of government of policy action based on ‘ten habits of highly successful governments’, and compares this to the market-based model. From there he examines very specific policy areas: urban planning and infrastructure, health and education, economic management and income distribution, and law & order. He finally proposes more public participation in policy-making, a concept he calls ‘liquid government’.

For those familiar with academic writing about policy-making, and social science approaches, this will no doubt be a triumph. It is certainly readable, and Rashbrooke explains complex ideas very well, being able to simplify things down to the essential points. However, this is very much a compendium of writing by overseas professors and a few New Zealand academics, with some authors outside of the academy. So there are a lot of quotes from international experts, but I’m not sure it is much more than a useful synthesis of the overseas literature. Some of the local experience doesn’t fit that well with the European examples, such as in urban planning where our ‘State Housing’ is barely mentioned, and he seems to favour a new social housing tenure.

There is a more significant problem with the term Anglosphere and its key feature, which involves international finance. Rashbrooke acknowledges that the Anglosphere countries control the tax havens, or secrecy states, which allow the large corporations and richest individuals to hide their money. Besides not examining New Zealand’s role in the ‘offshore world’, it seems rather naïve to think that the Anglosphere is going to lead the way in policing the tax havens or re-imposing financial regulation. Rashbrooke quotes from an IMF report, which apparently recognises that the State should be able to control the flow of international funds and thus prevent speculators destabilising national currencies. However, these are very policy tools that have been systematically removed by the right wing parties in government, and this has been mostly accepted by social democratic parties, due to the power of offshore finance.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Government for the Public Good: The Surprising Science of Large-Scale Action
by Max Rashbrooke
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781988545080

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