Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2012:2
Reviewed with Anne-Marie Pålsson, Knapptryckarkompaniet. Rapport från Sveriges riksdag (The Button-Pressing Brigade. Report from the Swedish Parliament)
Two approaches to intelligent discussion of democratic political processes: one is the author’s personal and frankly partisan account of a period as a Member of Parliament, and the other a compilation of academic conference papers on informed decision-making at high level, with urbane framework pieces by the editor.
Anne-Marie Pålsson is a distinguished academic, a specialist on the economic policy effects of state regulation of capital markets. Her expert status must have been a help when she argued that it makes economic sense to give tax rebates to people who pay for domestic services. She got her way and the tax reform became, unsurprisingly, very popular, even though the idea went against the grain of Swedish egalitarian traditions; Pålsson’s book Is There a Market for Domestic Work? (1994) was as contrarian as it was sensible.
In 2002, taking time out to be a parliamentarian had seemed a good idea, but eight years later, she felt disillusioned: ‘…step by step, [my pride and high hopes] had been replaced by frustration, irritation and, occasionally, rage.’ This turnaround was driven by her realisation that MPs were and are remarkably powerless, despite the power of the Swedish parliament
in both constitutional and political terms. The people’s representatives are reduced to button-pressers – yes-button for your party’s proposals, no-button for everything else. No heed is likely to be paid to an independent idea championed by individuals or small group, if the proposal even marginally deviates from party orthodoxy. Pålsson’s analysis of what has gone wrong points to multiple causes: the hierarchical structure of the political parties, their lack of accountability and, especially, the disproportionate influence exerted by the leadership of the ruling party (or parties, coalitions being the norm in Sweden).The electoral mandates are likely to get out of step with current political events and there are no effective ways for arbitrary decisions to be checked and, eventually, changed,
Sweden’s parliament is the strongest in Europe, but its parliamentarians are the weakest, Pålsson argues, and sets out to prove her point in an interesting survey of power distribution and political audit in the 17 OECD countries (30 in all) which provided relevant data. The variables are constitutional – two chambers or one? constitutional court? citizen’s participation? etc. – and financial, such as funding for MPs and for political parties, and also includes transparency and accountability. Several of these measures suggest that Sweden’s parliamentary system may indeed be uniquely prone to toeing the governmental line.
A would-be decision-maker as well as an analyst, Pålsson ends with recommendations for how ‘the system’ could be changed for greater responsiveness. Focusing on the way parliament works, she goes on to discuss constitutional and electoral reform, the role of non-party groups, financial and policy audit and other issues.
As a thoughtful commentator on what governs political decisions who also writes very well, Anne-Marie Pålsson might have joined the impressive group of academics specialising in – as several of them put it – ways and means of ‘Speaking Truth to Power’. Per Molander explains, in his introduction to The Knowledge and the Power, that the phrase is the title of classical analysis by Aaron Wildavsky (1979) and a long-standing topic in political philosophy. He returns to the historical angle in an eclectic, nicely illustrated mini-treatise on Merlin and Power in one of his two essays that form the book’s epilogue; the final piece refers to the perceived tension between truth and power as concepts, and moves easily if sometimes bewilderingly from ‘praxis v. expertise’ to epigenetic influences on brain maturation. The latter refers to the only neurophysiological item among the eight chapters (all are based on papers presented at a 2009 conference). The rest, although varied in tone and topic, stay within the social and political sciences. Decision-making is examined in a variety of contexts: economic and educational policy, including higher education, court practice and civil service administration.
In other words, there something for almost everyone with an interest in the overall theme of making expertise matter without favouring technocratic governance. For the non-specialist, the chapter where the political scientists Shirin and Per Ola Öberg discuss the balance between ‘dismissing knowledge and delegating policy to experts’ is one of the most accessible: two case histories, written up with wit and insight. Clarity and humour are also characteristics of the essay ‘Auditors and politicians – is anyone listening?’ by another political scientist, David Tarschys, who examines the earnest but often ignored exercises in organisational audit and data evaluation, themes that recur in the book.
Both books demonstrate a general preoccupation with ways to make politicians more accountable, but also with other issues – for one thing, the right to individual decision-making that should logically be part of holding political office. The historian Gunnar Wetterberg, who describes the origin and development of political control of state finances, implies it in his intriguing three criteria for rank-ordering Swedish finance ministers: orderly management of the finances, firm handling of crises and long-sighted structural reforms. In other words, in the end the buck must stop somewhere, with someone.