"The state is less dependable than a convenience store"

Masuzoe Yoichi, minister of health, labor, and welfare and the LDP’s resident political scientist, has an essay in the December issue of Chuo Koron in which he details the crisis of confidence in the Japanese state and calls for systemic change that will restore the confidence of the people in their government.

The title of his article — which I’ve borrowed for the title of this post — is based on the idea that somehow banks, post offices, and convenience stores manage to handle the transfer of funds without problems, but the national and local governments cannot transfer social security payments without embezzlement. In part one, he pins the blame squarely on bureaucrats.

“From old it is said, ‘Kanson minpi [bureaucrats exalted, the people despised],’ with the hidden premise being that bureaucrats are steadfast and the people terrible. However, now it is the exact opposite of that. Therefore, it is basically good to entrust “to the people that which the people can do.”

In the second part, he discusses how the scandal-ridden Social Insurance Agency — part of his ministerial ambit — cultivates a culture of unaccountability for lower officials. As he writes, “In other words, since there are no orders from above and a lack of scrupulous oversight, it happens anyone can do whatever they want. The result is that this invites the occurrence of scandals like the sloppy management of records and embezzlement.” He even goes so far as to suggest that the contemporary bureaucracy, as a system of irresponsibility, is “completely the same as the Japanese Imperial Army.”

His solution is the implementation of a top-down system in which responsibility and accountability are clear.

In addition, he suggests that other checks on administration are needed, pointing to the example of the ombudsmen in Scandinavian countries. And he suggests that rather than viewing the nejire kokkai as a bad thing, it might be a good thing for accountability in Japanese governance. (Indeed, it was for this very reason that I think that a grand coalition would be a bad thing.)

In the third part, he explores the Japanese policy agenda, looking at the implications of the faulty social welfare system for the Japanese economy as a whole. He argues that consumer spending is low due to fears of inadequate care in old age. Ergo, if the Japanese government can alleviate insecurities about retirement, it can get people to spend more, jump-starting the Japanese economy. He suggests that an increase in the consumption tax rate from 5 to 10% is necessary, with the difference alloted to maintaining the social welfare system. Accordingly, the more people the spend, the better funded the welfare system. (This proposal strikes me as too good to be true — and it’s not entirely clear to me why people wouldn’t react to a consumption tax hike by spending less.)

Mr. Masuzoe concludes by calling for radical restructuring of Japanese sub-national governance, reorganizing prefectures into larger regions with radical subsidiarity, reducing the central government to nothing more than the cabinet office and the foreign, defense, justice, and finance ministries.

Mr. Masuzoe’s heart is in the right place, so to speak. In particular, longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my belief in the importance of systems of accountability both inside and outside of government. Mr. Masuzoe clearly recognizes that Japan is missing the institutional checks present in other democracies that ferret out and punish wrongdoing by legislators and bureaucrats. Its courts are weak, its prosecutors face a standard of evidence that keeps many cases from going to trial, its agencies lack ombudsmen and inspectors general, its journalists and media outlets have all-too-cozy relationships with those in power (without a tradition of investigative journalism), and the political parties and the Diet, thanks to the LDP’s nearly uninterrupted hold on power, are enablers of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption rather than a check on administrative abuses. NGOs are a recent arrival, and many depend on the government for funding.

In other words, this is where Mr. Masuzoe and other reformers should focus their attention. Regular alternation of ruling parties will help too, of course, but barring that reformers should push for the creation of accountability systems throughout the Japanese government.

Meanwhile regional subsidiarity strikes me as a scheme that would, if anything, ensure that certain rural regions that are already dying would have even less chance of reversing their fortunes. As MTC notes in the post linked to above, the central bureaucracy has much to answer for as far as the decimation of the Japanese countryside is concerned. But it is not altogether clear to me how removing impoverished regions from the hands of the central government and putting them into the hands of cash-strapped regional governments will make them any more likely to thrive. As a matter of principle, subsidiarity is great — after all, as students of the American progressive movement know, states can be the laboratories of democracy. But moving government closer to the people is no guarantee of good governance; I think it’s just as likely that the mega-regional governments in Mr. Masuzoe’s scheme could be just as prone to profligacy and venality as Tokyo has been.

In short, I agree with Mr. Masuzoe’s diagnosis, but I don’t think he paid nearly enough attention to the cure.

One thought on “"The state is less dependable than a convenience store"

  1. I\’m slightly encouraged by Matsuzoe\’s call to action. It\’s certainly more than we\’ve heard from anyone else about this issue. For decades we\’ve merely had discussion and inaction. Now at least there\’s a proposal to discuss.The issue to me is the people who make up the bureaucracy. Even if accountability is raised people don\’t change overnight. If the same people are running the government after this proposed restructuring, I would say it is bound for failure. There has to be something fundamentally changed (such as with the postal privatization) in order for people to begin to act differently.I\’m skeptically hopeful.

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