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Monday, October 17, 2005

Thoughts on legitimacy and public servants....

My DGov lectures at Queen's University covered issues of legitimacy and accountability as they relate to the current problems confronting governance in the EU. The DGov group consists primarily of some experienced (and pretty savvy) civil and public servants from the Republic of Ireland. Among the points I attempt to make in my remarks about legitimacy is that the "legitimation crisis" is real and for the most part an active "fault line" hidden beneath the surface of contemporary governance. Where it has "surfaced" is in discussions surrounding the efforts to "constitutionalize" the EU (to make a functioning 'regime' into a formal 'polity') and (less directly) in the administrative crises that confront many of the civil and public servants sitting in that classroom.

Put simply (and that is perhaps a problem with my presentation of it in the classroom), the crisis reflects the fact that we are in the midst of a transformation of legitimacy from an instrumental to a consummatory object of governance. The legitimacy of the modern welfare state was an instrument of governance -- a means to achieving the "general welfare" objectives manifest in the choices of state officials. It was not, unto itself, a goal or mission for those who designed or implemented government programs. To a certain extent, foundational legitimacy -- that necessary for the very existence of the state and deference to it -- was assumed by public officials, and it was only the use and manipulation of that deferential inclination inherent in foundational legitimacy that might interest those who governed.

But at some point -- or perhaps in some Habermasian dialectic process -- legitimacy was transformed from a means to an ends. The very logic of our managerially obsessed societies seems to make this inevitable, for what is valued most is what "works" -- that is, what delivers the goods and service most effectively and efficiently. There comes a point in such societies where the instrument -- the technique, in Ellul's terms -- becomes the object of desire and symbol of achievement. That seems to be what occured with instrumental legitimacy, for now the tool has become the good that needs to be manufactured and distributed....

There are all sorts of implications flowing from this development, not the least being challenge facing those who sit at the center of the transformation -- the public servants trained under a administrative state that valued legitimacy for its functionality who now confront a post-administrative state where legitimacy is the primary purpose of government and governance....
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