Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A strange love: or how I learned to stop worrying and enjoy politics

I am interested in politics.

This is a matter of some concern.

The reason is simple: what goes on in Westminster is largely irrelevant to me and my life. I live in an advanced, socially stable, pluralistic liberal democracy. I have easy access to clean water, good housing, good food, healthcare, education, information, the company of others, culture, and the opportunity to pursue whatever idle desires may remain now that the problem of my personal comfort has largely been solved.

Politics, however, is a source of depression and irritation. There is so much wrong with how our political system works that observing it is like watching a man sweeping a dusty hall with the brush extension of a fully functional industrial-strength vacuum cleaner.

The costs of any possible, and hence marginal, improvements in my personal condition are so high that they outweigh the gains.

Spending more than £10.6 billion on an ID card system that might fractionally reduce the already miniscule probability of me dying in a terrorist attack is an act of such revolting waste and intellectual squalor that I am sick at the thought of it.

The act of vetoing the publication of the minutes of the meetings in which our government decided to embark on an illegal and murderous war (not to mention going to war in the first place) is one of cowardice, both political and primal.

There are better political systems out there. Ones that are more representative and more democratic. And yet we're stuck here with an absurd system of elected kingship.

Given the failure inherent in the Westminster of politics the rational response is to simply ignore the newspapers and blogs that discuss these remote phenomena and concentrate on things of genuine local importance, whatever they may be.

But I am, of course, not rational.

Given I cannot ignore this irrational interest in politics I can only ask the question:

Why am I interested in politics?

The stock answer is that I consider myself a responsible citizen and therefore ought to be aware of and engage in the democratic process. This is of course nonsense. The only duty of a citizen is to obey the law.

I suspect that the source of this political disease is similar to that of the unfathomable interest that some of my friends have in the game of association football. They, like me, lack the power to make any substantive changes to the rules of the game and who gets which job for which team, and frequently decry what they see as poor decisions on the part of those appointed, but ultimately it is the same impulse that leads them to read the sports pages just as I read the politics and business pages.

Chris Dillow comments on this idea of rational inattention of politics:

So, what would be wrong with someone who avoids, as far as possible, all political knowledge - they don’t buy a newspaper, ignore political websites, don’t watch TV news, turn off the radio when the news comes on, and so on?
The obvious answer is that paying attention to politics isn’t a matter of narrow utility maximizing. We should do so because virtue requires it. Being a good citizen requires us to follow politics.

But does it? There’s a long tradition of people shunning public life: monks, hermits, Voltaire advising us to cultivate our gardens, MacIntyre urging us to retreat into local communities. And what’s virtuous about wishing to impose one’s own ego and limited knowledge onto the rest of society?

Nor is it the case that ignorance about politics need, in principle, be associated with general ignorance or incuriosity. It’s perfectly possible in principle to be very informed and cultured on all sorts of matters whilst paying no attention to politics - just as one can be clever and cultivated whilst being ignorant about, say, fruit flies or medieval plainchant

Further: as Nassim Taleb argues in Fooled by Randomness politics is one of those areas of human endeavour where success has more to do with random luck than any exceptional, empirically measurable, skill. What Taleb says about corporate CEOs can be paraphrased for politicians:

Politicians are not administrators. [...] they are often "empty suits" [...] persons who are good at looking the part but nothing more. [...] what they have is skill in getting promoted within a political party rather than pure skills in making optimal decisions - we call that "political skill."

So not only do I lack the power to change things substantively, neither do most of the participants.

Another problem with politics is that most of it is filtered through what is written by journalists.

Taleb argues against listening to journalists' opinions on anything, as the skills required of a successful journalist are not those required of a good political scientist[1]:

A journalist is trained in methods to express himself rather that to plumb the depths of things - the selection process favors the most communicative, not necessarily the most knowledgeable.

To conclude. Politics is my idle entertainment. Just as some watch soap operas and others watch association football games, I watch Newsnight and read political blogs. It isn't all I do, of course, but at least it is explicable.

[1]: Taleb is also highly critical of the whole notion of "political science", but is even more critical of journalists, so I'll let that slide for a moment.

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