Friends or competitors: Uneasy Relationship between Politics and Policy Sciences?

Following my last post, I had a fascinating exchange of emails with Lynn Fendler.  I am reproducing it below after some cleaning up of and additions to my own comments.  Lynn used the term ‘monetocracy’ to speak about the current shifting of balance from politics to markets.  This was enough of a prompt for me to think further and raise some questions about the uneasy relationship between politics and policy sciences.

Me: A friend had recently suggested that the cost of supporting the so-called private school ‘market’ was underestimated.  He pointed out that the costs associated with mechanisms that were being put in place by the government to support the so-called ‘education market place’ were not being taken into full consideration when estimating the reductions in public expenditures.

Stefan Collini made a similar argument for higher education reforms in England in this piece written for the Guardian. An excerpt below:

“Ah, but it’s all because of “the deficit”, isn’t it, the need to reduce public expenditure? No, it isn’t. Whatever view you take of this government’s macroeconomic policy, the truth is that the new higher education system will not reduce public expenditure in the short or even the medium term. Indeed, the reason why the white paper now proposes a more centrally controlled system than at present – in terms of determining how many students with particular A-level results universities will be able to take – is because the government has belatedly realised that the new fees will otherwise increase public expenditure in the short term. In fact, the independent Higher Education Policy Institute, which published its analysis of the proposals this week, thinks the government is still underestimating the cost to the public purse of the new system. The measures are clearly being introduced for political reasons, to install the simulacrum of a market and to make universities serve the economy more directly.”  University market is a con

Lynn: Lately I’ve been seeing that we do not live in a political world anymore. Long ago, we had a theocracy (some still have…), then we had political systems (democracies, republics, Constitutional monarchies, whatever), but now we have a monetocracy, which is no longer within the realm of political discourse. I made up that word myself some months ago (even as I knew somebody else would have already coined it). Today I Googled “monetocracy” and got this hit from Local Planet (Ireland).

I: Sounds like an astute observation to me!

The discourses of policy science appeared somewhere in the mid 20th century. My current readings of the early discourse of policy sciences suggest that they were not extensions of a single academic discipline but came together as a multidisciplinary enterprise. In this sense, as Peter Deleon puts it, “their development was to be based on a problem (rather than on a single academic disciplinary) orientation, a multi- (as opposed to a solitary) disciplinary approach… and…an explicitly normative (rather than value-neutral or value-free) procedure.” (Deleon, P. (1997). Democracy and Policy Science. SUNY Press). But eventually policy analysis methodologies became exclusively reliant on economics (e.g., benefit-cost analysis, risk analysis, rates of returns and so on).

Primers of policy analysis spoke of politics in disparaging terms. One primer, for example, described benefit-cost analysis as an antidote to the ‘vagaries’ of politics: “[o]ne of the great virtues of the benefit-cost approach … is that the interests of individuals who are poorly organised or less closely involved are counted. (This contrasts with most political decision making procedures.)…Benefit-cost analysis is a methodology with which we pursue efficiency and which has the effect of limiting the vagaries of the political process.” [Stokey, E. and Zeckhouse, R.(1978) A Primer for Policy Analysis, WW Norton and Company]

So it seems that a very specific rationality that seeks to monitise everything came to occupy the centre stage in the policy science soon after its emergence.  It does not view the democratic politics favourably and sees the ‘dispassionate and objective analysis’ involved in the monitising of policy alternatives as a way of avoiding the ‘vagaries of politics.’ Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, the title of John Chubb and Terry Moe‘s much cited pro-market analysis is a lucid expression of this trend

Analyses based on rates of returns are also responsible for billions of aid dollars spent, for instance, on primary education related ‘projects and programmes,’ simply because some pundits in the World Bank [George Psacharopoulos, for example, and many others] estimated that returns to primary education were more than returns on investments at other levels of education. Similar comparative benefit-cost analysis of private and public schools are routinely performed to justify the reduction in public expenditures on education. The critical political questions about the purpose and content of education are pushed to margins as they are not amenable to the categories of analyses employed under this kind of policy analyses.

I: Yet, I should say that in my view the assets of the *democratic politics* in the West are still in tact, though they may be diminishing. How else would one explain the public debates in the wake of Tories led education reforms in England? In US, however, the politics may have become an arena in which the politicians only justify their proposals in terms of rates of return and benefit-cost analyses. Whether it has been completely knocked out of the ring, I cannot say.

Lynn: “How else would one explain the public debates in the wake of Tories led education reforms in England?” Answer: as a red herring: a strategic deflection, like the pandemic of television, that distracts us and occupies our minds so that we do not focus on the fundamental shift from politics to monetocracy that has already taken place.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts


  1. The British School Wars? | Just questions! - 04/09/2011

    […] differences between the two. If the differences are not as substantive as the similarities, then Lynn Fendler’s comment about monetocracy makes even more sense.  She says that we do not live in a political […]

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