18 July 2007

Japanese bureaucracy

Reading Dogs and Demons: the Fall of Modern Japan, one is struck by how resistant the Japanese administrative class is to change, despite the disastrous effects its failings are having on the country, including the destruction of its natural environment. Here the author, Alex Kerr, contrasts the theoretical love of the Japanese people for nature, with what is actually going on:

It is impossible to get through a single day in Japan without seeeing some reference - in paper, plastic, chrome, celluloid, or neon - to autumn foliage, spring blosssoms, flowing rivers, and seaside pines. Yet it is very possible to go for months or even years without seeing the real thing in its unspoiled form. Camouflaged by propaganda and symbols, supported by a complacent public, and directed by a bureaucracy on autopilot, the line of tanks moves on: laying concrete over rivers and seashores, reforesting the hills [with a cedar monoculture], and dumping industrial waste.
Bureaucracy the world over is not subject to the checks and balances of the private sector. This can work to everyone's benefit, as when it does things that only governments can do, and does them well. A military victory, for instance, or successful economic planning - as in post-war Japan. But there's no self-limiting humility, little adaptivity to a changing world, certainly no internal pressure to change. Any such pressure has to come from the outside. But if government becomes too large, too monolithic, too powerful or too closed, it can resist such change, at the expense of its population, for decades. The worry is that the governments of the western countries are becoming like that of Japan, and the USSR: willing to use their powers, and the cynicism of an increasingly disengaged electorate, to resist change, and so enhance their capacity to enlarge their role - and ensure when inevitable change does come, that it will be painful, while in the meantime overseeing the destruction of the social and physical environment.

Against that, is the shrinking planet; people travel more and have greater access to information. They can, then, become more aware of the failings of their bureaucracy at home. Governments can resist that only by blocking travel and information flows, which is more and more difficult to do. But acting in the other direction are:

  • migration; whereby the most amitious and energetic of the mis-governed countries are more inclined to migrate than to improve things at home; and

  • the growth of the centralised superstate, along European lines, whereby a single bureaucracy encompasses enlarges an enlarged area, making it more difficult for people to compare its performance with other bureaucracies.
Indeed, the impression one gets reading Chomsky is of the use of power of the world's dominant bureaucracy - that of the the US - to subdue the independence of others. From many points of view, this is a bad thing, though possibly not the worst alternative. But it's bad in particular from the risk management point of view. Diversity of bureaucracies and the ability of people to compare them is one way, perhaps the most effective benign way, of getting them to represent their people's interests rather than their own.

The methods of the Japanese bureaucracy in the post-war decades were largely successful in achieving its aims, which were in turn largely compatible with those of the Japanese population. Those linkages may have broken in Japan and be fraying in much of the rest of the world, but a Social Policy Bond regime could bring them together again. Goals would be explicit, broad and agreed with greater public participation. Bureaucracy would articulate these goals, and raise the finance for their achievement. It would not direct funds directly to its cronies, but contract out the achievment of society's goals to the private sector, via competitive bidding. Amongst many other benefits, large-scale corruption of the sort that has destroyed so much of Japan's environment, would be a thing of the past.

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