Ofwat, Water UK, the Consumer Council for Water and The Managerial Revolution

In this article, I make the case that we live in a managerial society, one born in the tragedy of the first half of the twentieth century, and that it is this social system which is failing today. I also set out what can be done about it: the future is hopeful.

This morning, I watched on the BBC a fascinating series of interviews in connection with this story about water pricing:

Average water bills in England and Wales will be reduced slightly over the next five years, regulator Ofwat has announced.

It has ruled that typical bills will fall by £3 to £340 by 2015, before the impact of inflation is considered.

Of course, the interviews were not in themselves fascinating; they were fascinating for what they said about the way we have set up our society.

First, Ofwat’s Chief Executive explained with palpable enthusiasm what the regulator is going to do to the industry: force them to operate their businesses in certain ways, insist that there is a record amount available for investment, hold them to account and so on. Ofwat is of course a quango: its estimated expenditure for 2008-9 was £14,856,000.

At some point we heard the industry’s concerns. In September, Water UK, who are “working on behalf of the water industry towards a sustainable future”, said:

Unless Ofwat thinks again, the draft determinations will:

  • put at risk capital expenditure needed for the sustainability of water services;
  • delay service improvements consumers have requested and expect to be delivered;
  • reduce investors’ confidence in the financial stability of the sector leading to higher prices in the medium-term; and in consequence
  • provide a poor bargain for customers and society.

It might be worth reminding ourselves that there was a windfall tax on the utilities but we face an energy crisis: now we find the water industry saying, using jargon, that price controls threaten water supplies.

Returning to the BBC story, after Ofwat, we heard from the National Chair of the Consumer Council for Water, who explained how the Council would be standing up for consumers. Superficially, this is all very well — we would all like someone to stand up for us — but I immediately thought, “Is this a voluntary body of concerned consumers or a government body funded by the taxpayer?”

It is, of course, a government body, one with net operating costs of £5,836,000 in 2007-08.

We now wait for Water UK’s response to Ofwat’s announcement. We see a struggle of Titans in the media, all Titans funded by us: presumably operating Water UK costs the industry — and therefore all of us — a considerable sum every year (their accounts did not come immediately to hand).

So, in a nutshell and leaving aside indirect burdens, it appears the government is spending well over £20 million of our money every year just to deliver a ruling that we shall pay £3 a year less for water by 2015, ignoring inflation.

That will perhaps not come as a great comfort to the gentleman who was telling me recently that, at the age of 74, he is still paying income tax on the modest income he gleans from his savings and state pension. This is a man who worked and saved all his life.

He is right to be angry.

The nature of the system

Now, I have spent enough time with public servants to know that everyone means well. I know from personal contacts that senior civil servants are, on the whole, people of the very highest calibre, people of intellect and talent, good communicators with the best of motivations.

Nevertheless, the system which has been set up is one of conflict. Conflict between “the industry” (represented by Water UK), “the consumer” (represented by the Consumer Council for Water) and the regulator (Ofwat). It spends a great deal of money that we do not have.

Now, I do not propose in this article to prove whether this system is in any sense working or not: I attempt only to set out the pattern of our society and stimulate thought. Plenty of others have set out the case at length: see for example the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Living with Leviathan by David B. Smith. As Smith explains (emphasis mine):

New Labour’s so-called ‘third way’, and the prevalent economic paradigm in much of ‘Old Europe’, appears to correspond to none of these categories [free market, socialist and ‘Butskellite’ mixed]. Instead, it appears to be a system under which the private sector maintains a nominal legal control over its capital and labour, but the returns on these factors of production are so heavily influenced by tax and regulation that the public sector ends up effectively controlling such returns. This sham form of mixed economy, which needs to be distinguished from the British mixed economy of the 1950s, has traditionally been associated with fascist regimes – for example, the gelenkte Wirtschaft (supple or ‘joined-up’ economy) that Goering implemented in Nazi Germany in 1936. Such systems represent an obvious intellectual attempt to reconcile a socialist-inspired desire for a powerful interventionist state with the wealth-creating force of ‘bourgeois-liberal capitalism’, and tend to be popular with politicians and bureaucrats, because they force all sectors of society to kowtow to the state and its functionaries if they are to remain in business.

This is not a system of freely-chosen mutual cooperation: it is a system of managerial control.

The Managerial Revolution

It is very easy to find polemics against the social changes which were born in the first half of the twentieth century through two world wars and the Great Depression. They include, for example:

And it is very easy to find the relevant propaganda. However, it was only recently that I discovered a scholarly attempt to set out, in 1941, “What is happening in the world”: James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution.

Burnham identifies and examines three theories of the development of society:

  • The permanence of capitalism,
  • The inevitability of socialism,
  • The transformation of capitalism into some non-socialist form of society.

Burnham — previously a Trotskyist — dismissed the first two and explained that society was experiencing a “Managerial Revolution”. Consider (emphasis mine):

Burnham looked around the world for indications of the new form of society which was emerging to replace historic capitalism and saw certain commonalities between the economic formations of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and America under Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “New Deal.” Burnham argued that over a comparatively short period, which he dated from the first world war, a new society had emerged in which a “social group or class” which Burnham called “managers” had engaged in a “drive for social dominance, for power and privilege, for the position of ruling class.” For at least a decade previous to Burnham’s book, the idea of a “separation of ownership and control” of the modern corporation had been part of American economic thought, with Burnham citing The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Berle and Means as an important exposition. Burnham expanded upon this concept, arguing that whether ownership was corporate and private or statist and governmental, the essential demarcation between the ruling elite (executives and managers on the one hand, bureaucrats and functionaries on the other) and the mass of society was not ownership so much as it was control of the means of production.

So, while Burnham made many incorrect predictions, it does appear that, at last, here we are, firmly entrenched in a managerial society. Ownership is separated from control. We do indeed have a managerial system along the lines Burnham identified: technical managers, executives, finance capitalists and stockholders. We see that the stockholders do not actually control the companies they own and that attempts to motivate managers by making them stockholders seem to fail because the downside is not shared: bank staff were already paid in deferred stock options before the crisis and, in any event, the crisis was caused by government intervention.

It is this managerial system of society which is now failing us. Let me give two further examples.

As I have reported here in respect of the European Union, an organisation whose propensity to issue detailed rules hardly needs a reference:

So we have the bizarre spectacle of socialists who think the EU may be neo-liberal, capitalists who think it is a socialist project and democrats who illustrate the EU’s democratic deficit to the agreement of its supporters and even the EU itself.

And yet Burnham wrote (1941):

The day of a Europe carved into a score of sovereign states is over; if the states remain, they will be little more than administrative units in a larger collectivity.

It seems to me that the European Union is neither neo-liberal, with all its restrictions on external trade, nor is it socialist, with its emphasis on a supposedly free market: the European Union is managerial.

In “The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out – The Shocking Truth About Office Life”, David Bolchover makes the case that:

The real truth is that there are millions upon millions of people who are actively disengaged from their jobs, who spend months and years sitting in offices doing next to nothing, lost in the cracks of laughably inefficient and abysmally managed large organisations, their talents wasted and long forgotten.

And there is the tragedy: talents wasted and forgotten. No one is arguing against individuals: we criticise the system in which we live and work. Surely the stellar success of Dilbert and The Office speak for themselves? Why not encourage a new system?

The fundamental problem and the route to progress

Society is the cooperative actions of billions of thinking, acting people. It is an unimaginably complex system which is not only beyond complete comprehension at any particular instant, but which remakes itself and its trajectory as people make subjective choices, moment by moment.

In other words, society cannot be managed. It is a self-organising system which must be allowed to do just that: organise itself.

Ironically, the scholastics of mediaeval Salamanca, who first wrote systematic treatises on economics, knew this, as did many of the enlightenment philosophers. Perhaps the “scientific socialists” forced us to forget.

Management is a worthwhile and laudable profession — I would say that, as a manager myself — but to apply a tool to a problem it cannot solve is a mistake. We have been making this mistake long enough. As Professor Jesús Huerta de Soto writes:

To attempt to coordinate society through coercion is an intellectual error.

Thankfully, David Cameron has been setting out, consistently over several years, a vision of a post-bureaucratic age:

We’re living in an age where technology can put information that was previously held by a few into the hands of almost every one. So the argument that has applied for well over a century – that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and make decisions on our behalf – simply falls down. In its place rises up a vision of real people power. This is what we mean by the Post-Bureaucratic Age. The information revolution meets the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action. The effects of this redistribution of power will be felt throughout our politics, with people in control of the things that matter to them, a country where the political system is open and trustworthy, and power redistributed from the political elite to the man and woman in the street.

For all the rough and tumble of contemporary politics, I am convinced that David Cameron and the Conservative Party have the right vision and the right policies to transform our society into a system which will prosper and endure. People need more power over their own lives, more opportunity, more responsibility and a secure environment within which to determine their own destiny.

The managerial revolution is at an end: it is time for change.

Further reading

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