Priti Patel vs. Philip Rutnam: It’s in Britain’s interest that bureaucracy does not win
The reverberations around the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam, the top civil servant at the Home Office, continue.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, is receiving a barrage of abuse.
Labour’s John McDonnell has pronounced that he cannot see how Patel could carry on. He raised the possibility that she might be in some way “suspended”.
It seems to have slipped the shadow chancellor’s mind that he himself was keen to carry out a purge of economists in the Treasury and Bank of England if Labour had won the election. The officials which remained would have required “re-educating”.
But right now it doesn’t really matter what Labour thinks. The salient point about the criticism of Patel is that it is coming from the serried ranks of the metropolitan liberal elite. The Guardian newspaper has been in a total lather. The BBC’s coverage has hardly been impartial.
This group see Rutnam as one of their own: a professional expert, conscientiously going about his business. Naturally, they regard his actions as sound, carried out in the interests of the nation as a whole.
An important part of economic theory takes a completely different view of the motivations of bureaucrats. James Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his work in developing what is called “public choice theory”.
Public choice economics rejects the idea that bureaucrats act in a disinterested, objective way. They are no less selfish than the rest of us. Their primary motivation is not to serve the public, it is to further the interests both of themselves as individuals and of the bureaucracy as a whole.
The Home Office itself provides many examples which support this view. When tasked by ministers with deporting those without correct documentation, the bureaucrats did not try to track down, say, Albanian drug dealers. Instead, they minimised effort to themselves, identifying people who had lived here for decades but whose paperwork was not quite in order. The result was the Windrush scandal.
Some 20 years ago, I was involved in a project on crime for Charles Clarke when he was home secretary under Tony Blair. I discovered an influential group in the Home Office who believed that the number of criminal offences actually carried out was more or less constant from year to year.
It may have appeared from the data that there had been a huge increase in crime since the Second World War. On the contrary (according to these officials), this merely reflected changes in the propensity to report crimes. The actual level of crime, they purported, was the same in 2000 as it had been in 1950.
I was impressed by the brilliance of this hypothesis. It meant that no bureaucrat could ever be criticised for failing to control crime.
Of course, the view that people always act purely in their own self-interest is rarely completely true. There will be a mix of motivations at play. But in clashes between politicians and the bureaucracy, it is essential for democracy that the former win.