The three quarters of a million euros reportedly spent to pedestrianise and makeover Bisazza Street, Sliema, have understandably caused eyebrows to be raised. Are (finite and scarce) public funds being intelligently and fairly spent? “The important thing,” wrote Lino Spiteri in his column last Monday, “is that available resources are spread equitably and used diligently.”
He added that, as far as he could see, this “has been the case with Bisazza Street”, observing that, however, “controversy hounded the project and is still going on”. I am not concerned with the purely local controversy regarding who wants what and why. I am more interested in the very complex process whereby a government defines its spending priorities, especially when the available means are not only finite but also seriously scarce.
Smart alecs will, no doubt, spring up to tell us that it’s quite simple and straightforward really. It’s just a trade-off, they will say, whereby you give something up to gain another. All you need to do, they will explain to us with the condescending tone of those for whom any mention of complexity inevitably indicates that the speaker is hopelessly incompetent, is to objectively weigh the pros and cons of your choice.
The same smart alecs will ask us if, perchance, we have never heard of “opportunity cost”.
Then, with the impatient show of patience of those who know best, they will spell out that a trade-off implies that, for a given quantum of resources, opting for a certain product means sacrificing another, the acquisition of which would have required the same quantum of resources. If an ice cream costs as much as a beer and you cannot afford to buy both, if you opt for the ice cream then you forego the beer.
A government’s spending priorities, therefore, imply trade-offs. The smart alecs will, at this point, stretch their smile from ear to ear.
All you need to do, they will now suggest as they present their business card, is hire a consultant who will objectively and apolitically weigh the pros and cons of the choice and throw in, for good measure and an unreasonable price, a slick cost-benefit analysis. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. For a government, these trade-offs ultimately translate into political choices.
A government seeking to broaden its support base will endeavour to spread available resources as equitably as possible socially and geographically. The success of such a political strategy implies that the government has sufficient resources and enough time at its disposal to implement it.
If the resources are insufficient, in the best case all will get so little that it will have, again at best, no political effect or some will get what appears to the rest to be a disproportionate lot at the expense of those that got nothing at all. Enough time, too, is crucial. If a government’s days are counted, a sudden terminal display of generosity will – in a politically mature society – work against it. It will be interpreted as extravagant, prodigal and opportunistic.
The problem is compounded by the fact that, unless a government is effectively one government, where ultimately political choices are made according to one set of political priorities, politically advantageous trade-offs become impossible to manage. Ministers will tend to sacrifice the rest of the country for the benefit of projects in their constituencies. The advantage of individual ministers becomes a disadvantage for the whole government. Ants in backbenchers’ pants become hyperactive. Pre-existent cracks in the government, in the ruling party and in the social alliances that support it widen further.
Now, Lawrence Gonzi’s government – some shrewd observers doubt that we can at all speak about such a thing as Dr Gonzi’s government today – is evidently not one “where ultimately political choices are made according to one set of political priorities”. Moreover, it is not as if it were a government that can afford to throw money at all its problems, hoping to smother them in the process. On the contrary, it is a government that says that money is a problem.
Furthermore, it is not a government with all the time in the world at its disposal. William Flynn, in his June 6 comment to this column, wrote: “Whatever the PN needs to do, it has to be done at warp speed” (see www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110606/opinion/Catching-up-with-Enlightenment.369162). Given that warp speed is somewhat difficult for anyone to achieve, one suspects that Dr Gonzi’s government does not have enough time at its disposal to do a turnaround.
Attempts to win electoral favour by spending more money than one can reasonably afford on very visible deliverables will hound whatever the project is and will, as sure as hell, boomerang politically.
Finally, there’s the European dimension to all of this. Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and all that are hardly the ideal backdrop for conspicuous public consumption.
Above I suggested that it takes a “politically mature society” to resist a government’s attempt to buy its consensus. I think that we are finally beginning to see signs of this maturity. Don’t you think?
This article appeared in Dr Mario Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on June 20, 2011. The original may be retrieved at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110620/opinion/Beyond-Bisazza-Street.371479
The Enlightenment, Kant wrote in a popular text, is our “emergence from self-imposed nonage”. He then goes on to explain that by “nonage” (Unmündigkeit) – which some translate as “immaturity” – he means “the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance”. His definition goes on as follows: “This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.”
You may recall that the last time we met on this page, on the last Monday before the referendum of May 28, I shared with you what one of the intellectually sharper media personalities intimately associated with the Nationalist Party told me several months ago. The problem with Eddie Fenech Adami, he said, is that he never came to terms with the Enlightenment.
What an extraordinarily candid and profound admission from someone who, in the first 10 years or so of Dr Fenech Adami’s premiership, had worked to present the PN as the political party that was triumphantly leading Malta towards an epoch beyond “mere” modernity, to nothing less than the age of post-modernity. I have often referred to PN publications in the first half of the 1990s carrying contributions by respected Maltese academics announcing the failure of what Lyotard had over 10 years earlier characterised as the meta-narratives of modernity.
The divorce referendum campaign confirmed that not only are the leaders of the post-Borg Olivier PN not the post-modern vanguard they were presented as – in contrast to Labour leaders depicted by PN apologists in the 1990s as intellectual dinosaurs hopelessly trapped in obsolete 18th and 19th century projects – but, rather, that the PN leaders were themselves desperately defending positions that Kant had already criticised as obsolete in 1784.
The referendum campaign has confirmed that the PN’s leadership has not, as at 2011, emancipated itself from a hopelessly pre-modern and pre-Enlightenment mind-set. By “leadership” I do not refer only to its present leader and to Dr Fenech Adami – who, though no longer formally the PN’s leader, is evidently still its moral leader – but to its members of Parliament and to the majority of the members of the PN executive committee that, on February 12, voted in favour of a motion declaring the party’s position against the introduction of the right to divorce.
Having said this, it must also be said that not all those that identify themselves with the PN are as backwards as the party’s leadership as broadly defined above. There are many thinking Nationalists who are understandably bewildered and confused with what the leaders of the party they consider as their own have said and done on the issue of divorce. Not all of these “thinking Nationalists” – as I referred to them in my previous contribution to this column (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110523/opinion/Gonzi-and-thinking-Nationalists.366724) – would make use of the right to seek divorce when the right to divorce finally becomes law.
No thinking Nationalist, however, would agree to denying this civil right to those that need it, choose it and qualify for it.
This distinction is an important one and goes beyond the PN. Let’s pause briefly on it. You can be for the passing of a divorce law on grounds that this would enable persons who need it, choose it and qualify for it, to seek it as a right and you can also – at the same time and coherently – assert your personal choice not to make use of this right. This is not a fine distinction. It is a fundamental one. Not to appreciate this distinction is not to have come to terms with the Enlightenment, 227 years after Kant (what better example of the great achievements of European thought?) published his Was ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?) and, much later, if we take the Enlightenment, as some do, to have its roots in the mid-17th century. (*)
Let us come back to the position of thinking Nationalists today. There are many very fine brains indeed among them. Many of them knew all along that the leadership of the PN was not the best of all possible leaderships. The admission by the media personality I referred to above will not have surprised many of them. Few of them, if any at all, would today – and possibly not since a number of years ago – pretend to be intellectually inspired by anyone in the PN leadership: neither by any of the older ones nor by any of the younger ones, certainly not by the likes of, say, a Fenech Adami fils.
Some will migrate to the Labour Party, most will simply continue to lose interest in Maltese politics and in Malta generally but some others will resist the temptation to despair and will attempt to drag their party to the second decade of the 21st century. Or as close to it as possible. Kant, in the essay I quoted above, also wrote: “One may postpone one’s own enlightenment but only for a limited period of time. And to give up enlightenment altogether, either for oneself or one’s descendants, is to violate and to trample upon the sacred rights of man.”
(*) Read Kant’s text on this site. Click on https://watersbroken.wordpress.com/kants-what-is-enlightenment-the-text/
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta on Monday, June 6, 2011 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110606/opinion/Catching-up-with-Enlightenment.369162