Constitutionalizing Austerity: Taking the Public out of Public Policy

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Nothwithstanding their failure to achieve stated objectives, austerity policies have been pursued with persistence. Rather than failures prompting reconsideration, there is a clear trend to render austerity policies a permanent, constitutionalized response to economic challenges ‘for all seasons’. This article links the drive to austerity with the ‘new constitutionalism’ literature which depicts procedurally the removal of important decisions from the realm of liberal democratic politics and their re-location behind impenetrable and unaccountable barriers; and, in terms of content, embed neoliberal practices and policies, and the power relations that underpin them, as ‘normal’. This takes the public out of public policy making with negative consequences for democratic governance.

Policy Implications

  • Need to reconsider the advantages of maintaining policy flexibility in the face of economic crises, as opposed to locking into rigid, pre-ordained policy solutions based on theory.
  • Given the weaknesses of the prima facie evidence in favour of austerity measures there is a need to ensure diversity of policy advice so that orthodox solutions can be checked against heterodox opinions before being enacted. Institutions that foster such a process should be encouraged.
  • Need to reconsider the impact of constitutionalizing, and thereby depoliticizing important economic policy areas on the health of democratic governance. Democracy matters, including public control over policy issues, and should be enhanced rather than circumscribed.
  • Need to maintain and further develop policy analysis capacity within the public sector to avoid dependence on private providers.
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