23 May 2009

MPs Expenses

Let's bring back blame.

The natural response when something has gone wrong is to find out whose fault it was and, in some way, punish them.

That's not always the right thing to do. But it's not always the wrong thing either.

However, within an institution, throwing blame around is unpleasant, and not just for the blamed. It can go too far, so that people are always worried about being blamed for something, rightly or wrongly. Participants in the institution can attempt to shape it by getting other people blamed for things.

We therefore don't like to blame people. However, when something has gone wrong, some kind of response needs to be made. The natural response today is to say "we have changed the system so that this cannot happen again".

Sometimes that's the best response. But if the problem isn't the system (by which I mean the institutional rules), but the people, then it's the wrong response.

The current problem is that many MPs have taken manifestly excessive expenses. Therefore, they are now talking about changing the system so this can't happen again.

This is clearly the wrong response. More than almost anybody, MPs are supposed to be personally responsible for their actions. Their actions were wrong, they were found out. They can be blamed, and again, more than almost anyone else in our society, there is a mechanism for acting on that - it's called an election.

If the responsibility is moved to anyone else at all, it will be moved to someone less easily blamed than an MP.

The system worked. For once, the people who really are responsible for some problem are the very people who can be held responsible for it. If they are re-elected despite this, so be it.

The only problem with the system was that they nearly got away with it, and indeed did get away with it for a while, before they were found out. But the change that needs to be made already has been made - it's the freedom of information act that allowed us to find out about the expenses.

Therefore, the only changes to the system that need to be considered are changes to prevent the actions of MP from being kept secret. And, since the precedent has now been set, that means no further change is needed. Any change that allows MPs to keep more secrets can be presumed to be a fix to the problem that they got caught, not the problem that they took too much money.

The problem, as I said, with always finding someone to blame for any problem is that the corrupt can use the allocation of blame to shape the institution for his own ends. But how much more true is that of changing rules in response to any problem. We should be more suspicious of "changes will be made to procedures" than we are of "the people responsible have been sacked".

And the broader lesson is not anything about forms of system or organisation, it is that we must not expect too much of those who are supposed to work on our behalf. Their personal interests and their group interests will compete with our own, and while our diligence and their openness will help to hold them to our interests rather than theirs, there are limits to this and the limits are not very high. The best we can hope of government is that it will do a few things and get them right.

Previously: MP's discipline, Cheques and Balances, Margaret Moran

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