Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience

Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience

by Stein Ringen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300193190
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/09/2013
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Stein Ringen is professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at Oxford University. He lives in London.

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Copyright © 2013 Stein Ringen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19319-0



... he finds himself surrounded by many who believe they are his equals, and because of that he cannot command or manage them the way he wants.

—Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter 9

If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be." So said Max Weber, the greatest of German political thinkers, in a famous lecture at Munich University in 1919 under the title "Politik als Beruf." That might seem cynical, like a eulogy for dictatorship, but it is nothing of the kind. Serious governments want to rule. But also their populations want them to rule, to rule appropriately, of course, but therefore clearly to rule. Hence, in the American Declaration of Independence, "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men." We citizens want rule because we need rule for order, fairness and protection. We need to hold the tyranny of government at bay but we also want, in our own interest, our governments to defeat our tyranny over them. The problem, then, is obedience.


Macho men want the government off their backs but are dead wrong, as the bankers of the world learned after 2007 when the cost in money and esteem of radical deregulation caught up with them. When people live in society, it is government that prevents them from falling into the war of all against all that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed was the natural state of affairs, and it is government that makes it possible for us to live lives that are useful for ourselves and others. The painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti gave this knowledge life in fourteenth-century Italy with his frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, where he created allegories of good government with happy people building their future in a city of order and of bad government with idle people in a crumbling world. The Norwegian Johan Bojer, in The Last Viking, his early twentieth-century epic of the winter fisheries in northern Norway in the age of sail, saw the magic at work where life is raw. A fjord is teeming with fish, the fishermen scramble for a take in the bounty, a minor civil war breaks out until the regulator arrives and restores order: linesmen in that part of the fjord, netsmen in the other. "A thousand men were transformed from animals to human beings again." On today's testing ground for progress, in Africa, the economist Paul Collier, in The Bottom Billion, sees a near perfect correlation: where government works, the economy works, and where the economy works there is government at work.

No wonder Aristotle praised "he who first founded the state [as] the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all."

In his first inaugural address, at the birth of the American republic, President George Washington defined the job of government as "the discernment and pursuit of the public good." Citizens left to their own devices are interested in their various little private goods, and at each other's throats. Governments are instituted to cut through that chaos and create a new reality that is public. They must discern: the public good must be defined, explained and made accepted. They must pursue: the dominated must be made to obey, preferably by being made to want to obey.


Governments must get two things done. They must make policy and they must put their policies to work in society. S. E. Finer, in The History of Government, calls it decision making and decision implementing. In political reporting in the press, "politics" is almost always about the making of policy, as it is in a great deal of writing in political science. The government is victorious when it is able to get its programme enacted and it loses when the opposition is able to defeat it. Well and good, those are tricky problems—but not the endgame problems. In making policy work, the challenge is just as much or more in implementation. Decisions are everything for the members of the political class, but for society they are nothing unless they are implemented.

For example, on the 13th of February 2009, the United States Congress approved President Barack Obama's near $800 billion economic stimulus package. That was only two weeks after his inauguration and was, rightly, seen as a great victory. However, the money thereby allocated was supposed to flow through to hundreds of projects around the country in infrastructural investments, schools, employment, social security, health care and much more. The decision by Congress on that day was only to make the money available. What would flow through was yet to be seen.

An indication of some of what might happen was by coincidence on display in the Helsinki newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet in Finland the very next day. The Finnish government had launched its own stimulus package a few months earlier. A review by the paper revealed that in at least some areas very little of what was intended had reached its objective. For reasons of legal wrangling and logistical problems, intended credits to businesses through a government loans agency were being held up, as was intended support to local municipalities through another government agency to stimulate housing construction.

President Obama's package was inspired in part by the initiatives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, but Roosevelt did much more than to get money allocated. In his first one hundred days he not only summoned Congress and kept it working in emergency session to push through fifty major recovery laws, but also followed up by creating a raft of new government agencies to carry allocated money into projects in the real economy. In 2009, it took less than a week after Congress had approved the spending for reporting to emerge in the press about difficulties of implementation. Political posts remained unfilled in the new administration, and political leadership was not in place in several cabinet departments and lower-level agencies, including the Treasury, the result being a danger of at least delays in the implementation of policies that were seen to be urgent. Congress earmarked at least $20 billion for energy efficiency projects in towns and cities across the country, which would have to be carried out by local agencies that had few plans in place and were without experience of or capacity for projects on the necessary scale. President Obama had won a victory in Congress, but the significance for American society of that victory would depend on the administration's ability to practically get the money put to use. A year later, the president's popularity had collapsed, in part because of a widespread perception in the country that a great deal of his stimulus money had been siphoned off for pork-barrel projects with little or no relevance for economic recovery. And on the effects of the stimulus package for the economy, and how its multiple projects unfolded, the jury is still out.

Likewise in Britain. In late 2011, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, tempered his austerity with some public works plans to stimulate economic activity and growth. But half a year on, referring to "squabbling" and "plans left to gather dust on desks," the director general of the Confederation of Business Industries, John Cridland, "strongly criticised the government for the 'really disappointing' implementation of its growth plans, asking: 'Where are the diggers on the ground.'"


Whenever anyone wants to rule or lead, it is others they must manage—that amorphous mass of people who must obey but are inclined not to. That is a fact of life in the running of businesses as well as the governing of countries. For governance, it is a fact in democracies as in autocracies. Always, the craft of governing is about winning over reluctant and sometimes hostile others to not frustrating, and sometimes even to supporting, your intentions. President Harry Truman knew this when he handed power to his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and predicted, not without schadenfreude: "Poor Ike. He'll sit right here, and he'll say do this, do that!! And nothing will happen—it won't be a bit like the army." Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's chief of staff, remembers how Blair's term in office started: "A new prime minister pulls all the levers of power and nothing happens." Rule has everything to do with those, from a government's point of view, confounded others.

Why is that? Charles Lindblom, the eminent political scientist, has put it succinctly: "Many people constantly try to change the social world. An explanation of their failure more plausible than that of inertia is to be found in the great number of other people who are vigorously trying to frustrate social change."

Governors bring burdens down upon the governed, principally taxes and regulations. Therefore, the governed dislike what their governors impose on them. Therefore, they are looking for excuses to persuade themselves that they are entitled to disregard the will of those they for their own psychological gratification call "the politicians." Therefore, aspiring leaders must deny them reasons for refusing to make themselves followers.

It takes a lot. It is no good, said the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his attempt at a treaty for perpetual peace, to assume that people are angels. We need institutions that can maintain order in a nation of devils. Institutions are of various kinds, such as rules and culture. Good rules control devils. Good cultures make it difficult for people to be devils. There must be control and there is no reason to be romantic about it: there are devils aplenty, small and large, and leaders need to manage them.

But not everything and everyone can always be controlled. "Rule, to last," observes Henry Kissinger, speaking of China, "needs to translate force into obligation." At the height of the debate over bank reform in Britain following the recession of 2008, the head of C. Hoare, the country's most eccentric (and highly profitable) old-school bank, said: "We have had this massive scare, but what was the cause? A lack of moral compass and a lack of understanding of the nature of debt and civic responsibility. Changing capital ratios will not change that." There needs to be an acceptance in people's minds, and in the way they see each other, of the validity of order. There needs to be understanding. Let's be straight about it: there needs to be some morality and some shared sense of the moral in the cultural fabric we live within. For Kant, those institutions that can control devils are possible even among non-angels, but only if they have the intelligence to understand that "public conduct" requires that they check each other. Carl Schmitt, a legal scholar in Weimar Germany (whose reputation as a political thinker survived his later allegiance to Nazism), writing nearly a century ago, saw democracy somewhat mysteriously as a matter of shared identity between the rulers and the ruled which was possible only "for a people who really think democratically." Forty years ago, when there was fear that democracy might crumble under the competition from authoritarianism, the Trilateral Commission asked Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington and Joji Watanuki to analyse the possible "crisis of democracy." Their report was conditionally optimistic. "Democracies can work provided their publics truly understand the nature of the democratic system, and particularly if they are sensitive to the subtle interrelationship between liberty and responsibility."


Some countries have found their way to a habit of leaders governing well and followers cooperating willingly. There is, in the language of Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, political order. But that apparent simplicity is deceptive. Under the surface is a rough confrontation between instinctive antagonists, between the governed and the governors. Only some countries, at some times, have the good fortune that the confrontation has been resolved. We could call it a covenant, or a contract, but that's a bit grand. It's more of a deal, or better still a settlement, a settlement of order.

The modern study of democracy was inaugurated by the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville in his observations in Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. He found much to admire, in particular in his first volume. He found a settled confrontation. The American Constitution gives representatives the power they need to govern but also restrains that power in a system of checks and balances. Citizens were enmeshed in networks of associations that reduced their dependency on the state. The represented could trust their state to be benevolent.

But in his second and more pessimistic volume, he also found that an established settlement could disintegrate into what he called "soft despotism": a creeping erosion of freedom within a shell of democratic formality, which citizens allow to fester out of greed and indifference, gradually and hardly perceptively.

The American settlement was soon not only to disintegrate but to collapse into civil war when the destructive force of slavery in the republic of equality could no longer be contained. Whether a new settlement was found is debatable, but President Franklin Roosevelt's reforms could be seen as a quest. If that succeeded for a while, as it appeared during the Eisenhower presidency, it again collapsed under the strains of the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement at home. These influences have not yet been resettled, and to that we must now add to the American scene, as we will see, a fair dose of Tocquevillian soft despotism.


Democracies are normal or dysfunctional. In normal systems, the machinery churns on to the making and implementation of policy. It's like a normal car. It may have some scratches but you assume that the steering works so that you can set off and drive without lurching into the ditch. When a leader takes up office in a normal democracy, he or she can take it that the country is reasonably governable. We should take care not to ask for perfection, which is not available and the aspiration to which is self-defeating and destructive, but we should ask for and expect workability. Most democracies are in this meaning normal—which is why democracy has prospered, advanced and outdone the competition.

In dysfunctional systems, the machinery is defunct and good government not available, either because necessary decisions do not get made or, if made, are not implementable. In the next chapter, we will see how New Labour in Britain was given all the power a democratic government could dream of but that "a strong government was defeated by a weak system of governance." In America, Barack Obama fought a brilliant election campaign in 2008 and came to power as the most attractive leader since Ronald Reagan. But when he settled into office thinking that Washington could be made to work according to the textbook, he was overwhelmed by vicious subversion. Good government depends on a combination of functional institutions and competent leadership. If institutions are dysfunctional, no competence can save the day. But also, functional institutions are only a necessary condition and never a sufficient one. There is still the problem of obedience.

This defines the two ways that governments can fail: in a normal democracy if they are unable to work the system and in a dysfunctional one because the system is unworkable. This also corresponds to my two aims in this book, to speak to leaders about how to lead when the system is workable and how to reform when it is not. Leadership I'm able to discuss in general terms, but reform needs more specific context, which I find in the cases of America and Britain.

Excerpted from NATION OF DEVILS by STEIN RINGEN. Copyright © 2013 Stein Ringen. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface: The Futility of Power....................     ix     

Chapter One: The Powerlessness of Powerful Government....................     1     

Chapter Two: How to Do It Well and Badly....................     12     

Chapter Three: How to Use Power....................     35     

Chapter Four: How to Be a Government....................     59     

Chapter Five: How to Give Orders....................     76     

Chapter Six: How to Get It Right....................     98     

Chapter Seven: How to Make Officials Obey....................     116     

Chapter Eight: How to Make Citizens Obey....................     140     

Chapter Nine: Good Government....................     184     

Notes....................     219     

Bibliography....................     231     

Acknowledgements....................     241     

Index....................     243     

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