Killing the Scapegoat – an Argument for the Merging of Philosophy and Public Administration

I blame you!

Edoardo Ongaro makes a case for bringing the wisdom of philosophy into the field of public administration.

If things go wrong blame the bureaucracy! An ancient mechanism – find the scapegoat! – is never put to rest

It is always a very sensible thing to do to look at the sapience of the generations that preceded us for better understanding the present times. When I hear the public sector being blamed for something that goes wrong – with familiar claims like: It’s impossible to do business with so poor public services! Our country is being held back by Brussels bureaucracy! And the like – I immediately think of the ingenuity of the ancient Greeks who invented, and popularised, the scapegoat mechanism.

In its essence, it is a very simple social mechanism: it is based on the logic of shifting all the blame towards something, or somebody, depicted as the only cause for the current dismal situation. It is a simple and yet also very sophisticated method: it is based on a psychological mechanism whereby human beings have a natural tendency to blame others, not themselves, for what goes wrong, and to doubt complex explanations, our credulity being driven by the idea that there must be one, and only one, ultimate explanation for all the problems we have. The scapegoat mechanism is powerful in the way it allures our credulity, because it promises us to spare the fatigue of thinking hard and deep about the complexity of reality; why in fact making so much effort to tackle multiple causes if the remedy is at hand: just remove the external cause (the goat) that makes things go wrong (by burning it – poor goat!).

Shrewd politicians and media operators – amongst many others – have repeatedly and successfully, from their viewpoint, exploited this mechanism for gaining consensus and power. The many narratives claiming the superiority of the private sector over the public sector (with the latter holding down the former due to its inefficiency), or about Brussels bureaucracy as the leviathan causing all the problems encountered and stifling the aspirations of the peoples of Europe, are ultimately based on the activation of this simple yet powerful mechanism.

That is why we need to bring the wisdom of philosophy into the field of public administration

It was mulling over this as well as other bequests of the sapience of the generations that preceded us that made me consider the significance of building bridges between the social sciences – and notably the one to which I have dedicated my professional life: the field of public governance and administration – and philosophical thought.

Philosophy is an academic field with a precise status and profile in the intellectual division of labour, but differently from most other fields it is also something that concerns us all, and that may enlighten all other fields in a peculiar way. When philosophers help us probe into the essence of ‘time’, or of ‘human agency’, or of ‘well-being’, they provide us with new lenses to see reality more in depth, and hence to study a field more accurately and insightfully.

This is why a book introducing the relationship between philosophy and the field of public administration – the study and the practice of managing public services – may be valuable: to bring the wisdom of philosophy into the field of public administration; hence ultimately to help improve our life in the public sphere.

Philosophers do not need to possess special equipment to carry out their job, nor do they need to access special empirical evidence beyond what is accessible to everybody in everyday life (they do not need to carry out experiments and be granted the privilege of observing its findings in order to publish an academic paper). Yet the practice of philosophy has one requisite: it demands to take the broad view and adopt the long-term perspective. It is not enough to pick a favourite philosophical system or perspective: it is the patient dialogue among different perspectives that bears fruits. Each philosophical giant has to be considered in its own right, dwelling at least a bit on his or her thought, and appreciating how it contributes to a deeper understanding of realty.

This is why in the intellectual journey of Philosophy and Public Administration: An Introduction the reader will be guided throughout philosophy from its origins in the ancient Greek civilisation to contemporary philosophical strands, dwelling at least a bit on each major epoch of western philosophical thought.

Philosophy East and West

In the last sentence it is emphasised this book is about western philosophy: what about eastern (and Islamic, and other) philosophy? As Wolfgang Drechsler– a ‘Western’ scholar very knowledgeable of eastern and Islamic philosophical thought – reminds us of in his postscript to the book, it is important to rediscover the contribution of alternative philosophical-administrative paradigm of public administration, like the Confucian one and the Islamic one. Yet, such rediscovery is made difficult by the inheritance of western dominance in the public administration discourse globally: “the top PA schools in, say, Turkey, China and so on are only gradually adding their own traditions to their curricula, if at all, and if they include any Philosophy as connected to PA, in general, it is global-Western” (Drechsler, postscript to Philosophy and Public Administration: An Introduction).

Indeed this book hopes to trigger a much-needed dialogue across regions of the world on the importance of philosophy for furthering our understanding of public administration, by bringing a first, small yet important, brick to the edifice of a deeper body of knowledge about how philosophical understanding can enlighten the theory and practice of public governance and public administration.

Edoardo Ongaro, Professor of Public Management, The Open University

Ongaro Philosophy

Philosophy and Public Administration is available now.

Read chapter one on Elgaronline.





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