Global Dashboard had its summer drinks party last night – thanks to Alex and David for hosting us, it was great fun. I particularly enjoyed talking to some of the civil servants who attended, as I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy and morality, and the question of whether it’s possible to have a ‘good society’ in a bureaucratic age. Can politics promote the good life, and if so, what is the role of the civil service in pursuit of that goal?
When the modern civil service was set up in the 19th century, via the reforms of Macaulay, Northcote and Trevelyan, it was modeled on the Chinese imperial civil service – this is why senior British civil servants are still called ‘mandarins’. The Chinese civil service was founded on Confucian philosophy, and part of that philosophy was the meritocratic idea that anyone could become a good person through the proper philosophical training: ‘By nature men are similar, by practice men are wide apart’, as Confucius put it.
So the Chinese civil service had an open exam entry system, which tested civil servants’ intelligence and aptitude in various subjects, including their knowledge of the Confucian philosophy. The imperial civil service played a central role in shaping the Confucian moral values of Chinese society. Civil servants were, in effect, the public intellectuals of Chinese society.
When it came to the British civil service, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, who set up the prototype of the modern civil service in the Raj, embraced the Chinese idea of the civil service as a meritocracy, but thought the civil service should embrace an empirical, scientific model of statecraft rather than also being guided by ancient ethical philosophy like Chinese mandarins. In an essay on Francis Bacon, he unfavourably compared the ancient Greek approach to the modern, English approach: “For Plato, the end of legislation is to make men virtuous”, he wrote, while for Bacon, the end of legislation is “the well-being of the people”, by which Macaulay means making “imperfect men comfortable”, supplying their “vulgar wants”, improving their material circumstances.
Macaulay was deeply scornful of the way ancient philosophy focused entirely on creating inner virtue rather than trying to improve the material circumstances of society. He believed philosophy had failed in its project of creating character or virtue, while the new philosophy of science had, in a few centuries, invented such wonders as the steam-engine. He wrote: “The wise man of the Stoics would no doubt be a grander object than a steam-engine. But there are steam engines. And the wise man of the Stoics is yet to be born.”
So Macaulay thought that the aim of the civil service, and of politics in general, should be improving the well-being of the people by making life more comfortable, through science and technology. Modern statescraft should deal in facts, not airy-fairy ‘values’. And later reformers, such as Northcote and Trevelyan, agreed that the civil service should be both meritocratic in the Chinese model, and should also strive to be impartial, non-political, technocratic. This vision of the civil service abides: when Whitehall came to codify its values (this only happened last year) it enshrined the values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.
But is there a contradiction here? If a civil service is impartial and non-political, does that also mean its amoral? If it is purely technocratic, then is it value-less? If a government wanted to go to war on a trumped-up cause, for example, would it be the job of the civil service to find the most efficient way of administering its masters’ will?
If the civil service aims, as Macaulay says it should, at the ‘well-being of the people’, does that not imply some moral vision of the good, or can one have a purely scientific and non-moral definition of well-being and human flourishing? Continue reading