‘Fear and discipline’ : Why Britain’s a sorry state indeed

78 years and some months ago, against a backdrop of economic turmoil that would ordinarily terrify those tasked with its resolution, a man told his country that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. That man was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking upon his inauguration as President of the USA in 1933.

Now, the politics of fear has driven his country to the brink of a rather different economic collapse from that instigated by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. But America is not the issue at hand here, despite its obvious implications for both our economy and our faith in the capacity of human beings to distinguish between constructive political discourse and that practiced by the Tea Party.

A key pillar of the UK Government’s argument in favour of its’ economic policy has been that were it not for their spending cuts, our economy would be in similar trouble to Greece. Indeed, fear over Greek debt was even used as justification for the Lib Dems joining the coalition. Now, though, it seems the Government are moving beyond fear as merely a defence mechanism.

Oliver Letwin, described by some as the Gandalf of coalition policy, ensured government rhetoric took a darker turn this week. Speaking at a KPMG conference, Mr Letwin claimed that “innovation and excellence” were dependent on “real discipline and some fear on the part of the providers” in the public sector.  This drew much criticism, and rightly so. This was just the latest in this government’s attempts to stigmatise the public sector with waste and excess, a tactic most flagrant in their approach to public sector pensions. In essence, the architect for the government’s plans to reform public services has claimed that a core driver behind their approach will be to instil fear of job losses. While it is bad enough that he doesn’t already feel workers fear losing their jobs in the current climate, more worrying is the philosophy that instilling fear is the way to achieve results.

Worrying, that is, because he is right. In a capitalist economy, there is room for two forms of motivation; fear of punishment, and hope for reward. With Gandalf and the government having taken their staff to public sector pensions, the latter is no longer quite so appealing.  Cracking the whip, therefore, is the logical way for the coalition to turn in order to drive through reforms and increase what they perceive to be a distinct lack of public sector excellence.

Whether the public sector requires greater motivation, and whether this will come through fear of job losses and greater discipline, we will have to wait and see.

One thing does, though, seem abundantly clear to me. Economic recovery is an imperative, particularly for a government whose credibility is so invested in it. But is the society Britain wants, ‘big’ or not, so hopelessly dependent on the Adam Smith ethos that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest”? Can we not aspire to a society, an economy, and a public sector, that functions due to the common interest of its members? Would a country in which we all worked productively not merely because we hoped to be rewarded for doing so, or feared punishment for not, but because we were sure that this reward would be a by-product of our contribution to wider society, be so wrong? We should not need, nor should we seek, to impose discipline on workers. The benefits accrued by a worker’s investment into the greater good, both benevolent and selfish, should suffice.

Alas, we live in a capitalist society in which maximisation of individual reward supercedes all else. It is, in fact, just one of many flaws in our society that has reared its head recently.

Political debate in the last few weeks has been dominated by Labour’s calls for David Cameron to say sorry for hiring Andy Coulson, the disgraced ex-NoTW editor and No.10 communications director. The Prime Minister obliged, eventually, but perhaps the word’s use in another context is more instructive here. The government seems intent on revitalising the economy, and with it the country, by instilling some discipline and fear into the public sector. Albert Einstein, a man of relative authority on any matter, would not approve.

Writing at much the same time that FDR came to power and dismissed the need for fear, Einstein disputed its use. “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

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Posted on August 3, 2011, in Coalition Government. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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