Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Initiative or Compliance? Lao Tze had the answer.

Rosemary McLeod had a very important wee comment in her Sunday Star-Times column recently. The theme of her article was on how by regulating the disciplining of children we are actually hindering it. She cites the example of a Christchurch dad out riding with his kids who gave an older child a clip for failing to heed his safety warnings. As she points out having Police charge the father for this "assault" sends a very odd message to the children. She expands on this theme by pointing out that the Justice Ministry's youth crime prevention scheme report paints a sorry picture of complete failure. Whereas social discipline in nations like Japan is exemplary this is rejected because it is achieved at the cost of considerable domestic violence.

McLeod's point however goes to the very core failings of the Nanny State. In the Nanny State there is no initiative only compliance. The Nanny State knows best about everything. The Nanny State revolves around the rules and the rules are meant to deal with every contingency. It tells us what to do.

The problem is that it places a huge demand on the those making up the rules.The position was brilliantly lampooned by Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich in "The Life and Extraordinary adventures of private Ivan Chonkin" when one character bursts into tears in sympathy for Joseph Stalin at the beginning of the war.

"Its so hard for him because he has to think for all of us", she sobs.

Under the Nanny State people don't think for themselves, the State thinks for them. Thus a father who in the fear of the moment takes the initiative to drum a lesson into his errant son's head must be brought to compliance without any regard for the consequences of that action in itself. What is ironic is that when the legislation was introduced the public were assured the Police would use their initiative. It turns out however that under the Nanny State the Police feel they aren't allowed any. They too must comply.

A perfect example of the idiocy of is the latest case of schoolyard rapes in Lower Hutt. According to this report teachers were given long explanations about what they could and couldn't do sometime before these attacks happened. Now once upon a time a teacher with a stick would have prevented these crimes by whacking the miscreants. Sore bums and kids know their place.

Now, thanks to the Nanny State the safest course of action for the teachers is not to take responsibility but refer everything to another department (ie Police). Teachers are now more concerned about compliance than initiative or responsibility and the criminal element among their charges knows it. And now the Minister Chris Carter is getting in on the act by blaming the teachers again! The messages are so conflicted nobody knows what the masters want.

Worse the official system of compliance is failing. The average time spent waiting for justice for important cases is now 305 days. People are getting away with crimes because the system of compliance is proving too slow to deal with events. Without initiative everything ends up floating to the top and the top simply can't cope with the workload. The result is we are building a nation of compliers who wait for others to take responsibility - who in the end don't. In the end this just perversely rewards those who defy the system altogether!

Unfortunately a nation of compliers is not a nation that achieves anything. Achievement in every field comes from initiative. Initiative comes from taking an idea and running with it. By its very nature the outcome of initiative is unknown. Compliance is about preventing initiative. Its about denying people responsibility. And worryingly it is, in essence, the heart and soul of today's New Zealand government. Throughout government every official quivers in their shoes hoping they have correctly second-guessed the Ministers desires. Ministers appropriate all initiative and the Government goes into a state of thahn (from Watershipdown: terrified seizure).

To my mind this should be turned on its head. Instead the whole purpose of government should be to encourage initiative in the schoolyard and in the adult world. Government needs to embark on a new quest. A quest for empowerment and initiative. This is actually quite simple because it means Government does less and people do more.

All Government must focus on very strongly is what it is against rather than what it is for. What Government's are against is actually quite a short list, namely: corruption; dangerous selfishness; malice and thoughtlessness. Government is not a place to create things. Governments are hopless at that. It is a place to stop things and the things it should stop is behaviour we don't want. Moreover it needs to be do so with maximum initiative of its own.

A government built on initiative is one that passes down a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility. Its sole concern is to swiftly and appropriately punish corruption, dangerous selfishness, malice and thoughtlessness. At the same time, however, the punishers themselves must not be capable of evading responsibility (as for example the IRD or Police who seem to be so good at it). Nor does this mean endless recursion. There are simply three lines: the first line which responds to infringers ofthe rules (Police, IRD etc), the second line which audits the enforcers, and the third line which represents those enforced. A triangle in effect.

Of these at the current time it must be said it is the second line which is weakest. Too many Ministrys and Departments simply audit themselves. The role of the Ombudsmens Office, State Services Commission, the Audit Office and the Statistics Department has been badly weakened. These independent offices need the resources to protect citizens against state corruption; dangerous selfishness; malice and thoughtlessness.

At all times the focus must remain on the means. Have those charged with a responsibility achieved their required outcome with corruption, selfishness, malice or thoughtlessness? If not leave them alone and let them get on with it. If not intervene quickly and effectively so that the benefit of behaving badly does not gain any positive reinforcement. This is precisely what adults supervising children do and it makes immediate sense as a philosophy of government as well.

Restructuring Government for initiative means dismantling a lot of it. It also means politicians following the advice of Lao Tze " Do nothing that everything may be done". For the opposite is indeed "do everything that nothing may be done". It is a hard lesson for those who wish to believe they are achieving something in politics but a vital one if our nation is not to slowly lose its capacity to think, grow and adapt.

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