Asahi picked up this narrative on Sunday, in an editorial on the government’s recently issued fiscal policy draft proposal, asking whether it gives one the feeling that “dependence on the bureaucracy is returning.” Echoing an argument I’ve made before about Abe’s various reforms, the reforms proposed here (daylight savings time, targets of labor productivity, raising the minimum wage), while good and in and of themselves, hardly constitute structural reform. In the lurch, Asahi argues, the bureaucracy is regaining its former power — meaning an end to drastic change to Japanese economy and society.
The editorial is particularly harsh on budget cuts: the draft includes an overall percentage by which to cut, but leaves the details unstated, which means a role for the Ministry of Finance to fill in the blanks.
While Asahi is right to point out the “reversion,” one should not look back at the Koizumi Cabinet through rose-tinted lenses. Koizumi also allied with the MOF bureaucracy to push through budget cuts. And while the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (CEFP) was a promising source of reform ideas, it was often ineffective precisely because it had to rely on bureaucracies to move its plans. (Both points are well discussed in Aurelia George Mulgan’s Koizumi’s Failed Revolution.)
The other point is that the decline in the power and prestige of the bureaucracy as a result of scandals and mismanagement during the 1990s, and the subsequent rise in the stature of politicians and the premiership is not automatically a boon. One of the lessons from the career of Matsuoka Toshikatsu is that a weakened bureaucracy became easy prey for unscrupulous politicians like Matsuoka, who bullied and cajoled bureaucrats to do his bidding. Political leadership alone is not enough. Bureaucratic subordination is not enough. The relationship between politicians and bureaucrats must be clarified, roles clearly defined, and each held accountable for their actions.
But doing so will take the courage to take on both bureaucrats and the LDP’s policy organs — and Abe has been unwilling to do either.