Decentralization, devolution, and privatization is the current mantra.
As Lowi points out, it is intimately tied to the reigning political economy
theory-variously called "liberal capitalism," "finance capitalism,"
"globalization." This ideology has three parts:
The neutral, value-free laws of efficient markets. Not laws in the sense of legislation enacted by democratic governments, but laws that are "natural" and "scientific," that govern national and international economies. Laws not to be tampered with lest nations suffer the consequences of falling behind in the quest for economic prosperity. It is now assumed that national states no longer have the capacity to manage employment levels through fiscal and monetary policies.
Anti-statism, or government as part of "the problem." The collapse of the Soviet Union not only eliminated communism as an ideology, but also government. The ideological thrust is not only decentralization and deregulation, but also privatization, a movement that is very extensive and growing.
Blame the victim. The age-old practice of demonizing the poor and racial
and ethnic outcasts as a way of diverting attention from structural economic
conditions. Blaming the individual justifies dismantling the welfare state,
at least for those who are considered employable.
As Lowi points out, these developments are producing serious inequities especially for the poor and the working poor. The economy grows, at least in the United States; at the same time, ordinary people are working harder and barely keeping their heads above water. Poverty is increasing. Readers of this journal are familiar with the statistics.
Lowi also argues that devolution has changed the locus of government from national to local. Delegation, of course, is a favorite method of managing conflict. At the local level, he says, there is far more regulation of moral behavior, and it is of a conservative bent. Privatization masks social control under the guise of "efficiency." Privatization, especially the contracting out of government services, has indeed become extensive. Previously somewhat confined to more technical services (e.g., garbage collection, data processing), it has now been extended to human services (e.g., mental health); indeed, in Texas, large corporations are bidding to take over the entire welfare system-eligibility, conditions, payments, and sanctions. Privatization can only be efficient to the extent that there is competition, but competition soon disappears. In the meantime, governments lose their capacity to take back the programs. In short, they become captive of the private companies. How will clients fare? Private corporations are driven by the bottom line. They control the data; besides, governments would rather not know what is happening. With the serious incapacitation of Legal Services, clients are even more vulnerable.
As a result of these trends-unregulated capitalism and devolution-Lowi sees a serious threat of social disorder (a "meltdown"), and points to the increase in law enforcement as evidence that both national and local policymakers share this concern.
While there is much to be said for Lowi's concerns-and I certainly endorse
his call for a revitalized social welfare state-there is another side to the
story. At the national level, there is union-busting, the pro-rich Internal
Revenue Code, and welfare reform, to name only a few conservative policies.
At the local level, both centralization and devolution emphasize the role of
the ordinary citizen. National norms of equality replace parochialism. On the
other hand, local control, as well as the market, it is said, will enhance the
power of the citizens. They are closest to local officials, and they can vote
with their feet. The empowerment of client groups has long been a stated aim
of social policies-the War on Poverty, the era of mandated citizen groups during
the 1970s, as well as many of the most recent innovations in school reform.
The push for citizen empowerment has not only come from the Left. For a long
time, conservatives have sought to empower citizens through "mediating
institutions" and market-based incentives. Recall the sale of public
Deregulation and privatization are often justified as removing burdensome
and oppressive state control. However, Lowi thinks that at least for subordinate
people, devolution might only mean re-regulation under a new master. In many
instances, this is undoubtedly the case, but this conclusion is not foreordained.
Devolution involves shifts in power relations, and there may be more space for
subordinated individuals and groups. The ideologies of the "new" social
movements rest in part on the "legitimation crisis" of the modern
welfare state; translated, this means the dominating, bureaucratic, top-down
regulatory state can no longer fulfill its promise of emancipation. At least
for these new social movements-and others as well-decentralization, broadly
conceived, presents opportunities for struggle from below.