Friday, March 23, 2007


With my growing interest in politics and economics I have been reading quite a lot about the various different ideologies and methods people have developed to perform the functions that the social sciences of economics and politics describe, namely:

  1. The distribution and use of resources.
  2. The way groups of people make decisions.

One of the irritating deficiencies of our current system is that all the people who become powerful in government do so for many reasons, but the common denominator out of all of these people is their desire to be powerful. This makes them singularly unsuited to exercise power.

If they (the politicians) are to function as we (the mass of people that makes up the electorate) want them to then they need to conceal, to a certain extent, their own desires and ambitions from us. Therefore they need to lie in order to be elected. I understand that James Buchanan wrote about this idea.

So in a sense it is our fault. We expect our elected representatives to have high moral standards, to the point of being Saints, and yet at the same time our system is such that you can only achieve high office through a certain amount of “politicking”. Playing the Game. Climbing the Greasy Pole.

There is also this terrible muddling of ideology and politics. Certainly people, and politicians, should have ideals. Politicians need to have a basic set of ideals that are common to all people. Things like Murdering is Bad, Stealing is Bad, and so forth.

We expect our politicians to be simultaneously pragmatic and idealistic. But it is not basic idealism, involving belief in something like human beings being essentially good (or essentially predictable), or morality, or the dream of a world where the largest number of people are as happy as possible (and the smallest number of people are as unhappy as possible), it is a complicated sort of idealism concerning things like economic policy (something best left up to experts), or environmentalism, or even religion.

Hypocrisy is now seen as being a cardinal sin. But wouldn’t things be better if politicians didn’t have to be hypocrites? Wouldn’t it be better if they stated exactly and precisely why they were doing everything i.e.

“It is correct that I am doing this so that people will re-elect me, and so I’ll be remembered as a good politician when I have retired, but I am mainly doing this because of the following detailed and carefully argued series of reasons, annotated to indicate the credible sources for all the statements I make. I concede there are some reasons why people might believe that this policy is not the best it can be, the reasons that I disagree with these people in my belief that this policy is the best it can be are also detailed in my series of reasons.”

I would clearly be a very poor politician, at least from the point of view of public speaking.

We also need a more scientific approach to government. Politicians need to be able to say: “Well we tried this policy and it hasn’t worked, so I’m going to try something else.” For some reason journalists deride this as “flip-flopping”. But it is just good sense. If City Academies don’t work then stop creating City Academies and close the ones that are open. If creating a system of targets doesn’t work find some other way of running the system (fortunately the government does seem to be doing something like this in education).

I hope that empirical methods are used a lot in government, and I concede that our state functions very well, with blunders and problems highlighted by the media to the extent that people get the impression that the state is constantly on the verge of collapse, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

One of the reasons politicians do what they do is that they will often have invested in a particular policy in order to get elected. They are then expected to enact that policy. In order to be elected politicians need to come up with interesting and revolutionary ideas even if, once they are in power, they realise the policies may no longer be entirely appropriate.

Ways of getting politicians to behave better include placing limits on the number of terms that an MP or Minister can serve, then they will be able to concentrate on their legacy (e.g. stopping global warming) as opposed to their re-election prospects (which might be damaged by taxing SUVs and Land Rovers). We should also stop treating them as if they should be saints and start treating them as professionals who have a job to do. Monitor, comment and criticise what they do. Monitor and comment on what they say but don’t judge them as if we expect them to be Great Leaders.

A democracy doesn't really benefit from invested large amounts of power in a single, charismatic individual. We need to concentrate on policies that demonstrably work without making Bad Things Happen.

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