George Monbiot Describes Neobureaucracy, Not Neoliberalism


George Monbiot wants to tell us that neoliberalism is the key to all that ails us. The problem is that what he describes is better thought of as neobureaucracy. This being one of he very things that actual neoliberals – you know, like me – specifically warn against. It’s that you cannot mimic, effectively, the workings of a market through the bureaucratic devising of targets and their imposition. Everyone will, inevitably, just game that system of targets.

The only way you can gain the benefits of those markets is by actually having, you know, those markets.

By rolling back the state, neoliberalism was supposed to have allowed autonomy and creativity to flourish. Instead, it has delivered a semi-privatised authoritarianism more oppressive than the system it replaced. Workers find themselves enmeshed in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, centrally controlled and micromanaged. Organisations that depend on a cooperative ethic – such as schools and hospitals – are stripped down, hectored and forced to conform to suffocating diktats. The introduction of private capital into public services – that would herald a glorious new age of choice and openness – is brutally enforced. The doctrine promises diversity and freedom but demands conformity and silence.

Mises, Hayek, blah blah. But that micromanagent through the bureaucracy ain’t this neoliberalism thing. Nor Mises and Hayek.

All of those have attempted to privatise or marketise public services in the name of freedom and efficiency, but they keep hitting the same snag: democracy. People want essential services to remain public, and they are right to do so. If you hand public services to private companies, either you create a private monopoly, which can use its dominance to extract wealth and shape the system to serve its own needs – or you introduce competition, creating an incoherent, fragmented service characterised by the institutional failure you can see every day on our railways. We’re not idiots, even if we are treated as such. We know what the profit motive does to public services.

Privatising water led to greater investment in the water system. Privatising electricity has indeed led to competition between generation sources. Where proper market competition has been introduced it really has worked. For market competition does work.

So the marketisation and semi-privatisation of public services became not so much a means of pursuing efficiency as an instrument of control. Public-service workers are now subjected to a panoptical regime of monitoring and assessment, using the benchmarks von Mises rightly warned were inapplicable and absurd. The bureaucratic quantification of public administration goes far beyond an attempt at discerning efficacy. It has become an end in itself.

But that management by target isn’t privatisation, nor is it competition. It’s management by target. The 4 hour A&E target. That’s not neoliberalism, that’s neobureaucracy. It’s certainly a direct violation of Hayek’s strictures. The central bureaucracy simply cannot know whether 4 hours is the right amount of time. That knowledge is local – hey, maybe there’s some amount of triage going on and that sprained ankle does just have to sit there?

Its perversities afflict all public services. Schools teach to the test, depriving children of a rounded and useful education. Hospitals manipulate waiting times, shuffling patients from one list to another. Police forces ignore some crimes, reclassify others, and persuade suspects to admit to extra offences to improve their statistics. Universities urge their researchers to write quick and superficial papers, instead of deep monographs, to maximise their scores under the research excellence framework.

That’s all manipulation of centrally set targets, not competition or markets.

What Monbiot is complaining about is neobureaucracy, the idea that the Man in Whitehall can control matters centrally by dictat. He’s right, it doesn’t work. As Mises and Hayek warned us it doesn’t – thus the recommendation of neoliberalism, to have actual privatisation, competition. That’s not always possible, of course, but where it is it works. Which is rather the point of having it.

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Rhoda Klapp
Rhoda Klapp

In Texas (yes I’m going on about Texas again) there are free-standing Emergency rooms. Over 200 in Dallas alone, one at every traffic light, it seems. I am not here to evaluate the service or the prohibitive cost, just to say that many have a sign outside with the current wait time continuously updated. Usually it’s about two minutes. That is competition. If they had four hours up there, they would be gone in days.

Chester Draws
Chester Draws

Public owned and centrally controlled are not synonymous.

Hospitals can be public without part of a monolithic NHS — and in many countries are.

I’m all for public schools, but they have to compete against each other, not get the same number of students no matter how bad they are. A private sector helps provide that, but it can also be done via freeing schools from central direction.