The problem with politics

Politics is about answering two questions:

1. What goals should society be trying to achieve?

2. What are the best policies for achieving these goals?

Regarding the first question, in a democracy it is answered by giving everybody a (theoretically) equal voice/vote and averaging what people want. And in any cohesive society, such as Britain, there is a rough consensus on what sort of society we want. Everyone wants the country to be prosperous, people to be happy and healthy, and free to strive to achieve what they want from their lives. (There’s disagreement over what level of income inequality is desirable, but even here there’s a consensus in practical terms: if the benefits system was much less generous, millions would face real hardship, and if it was much more generous, millions would refuse to work because their matieral desires had been satisfied; so the benefits system is bound to stay roughly as generous as it currently is.)

There is less consensus over the second question, although nearly everyone agrees with the general outlines: Britain is going to remain a capitalist market economy, with enterprises largely privately owned, and with allocation of scarce resources largely determined by the market (of course, vested interests will continue to attempt to persuade legislators to rig the market in their favour, and sometimes they will succeed). And as well as the private sector, Britain will continue to have a large state sector, delivering public services.

So you might think that politicians ought to concern themselves with answering these questions, especially the second (the first is largely the electorate’s job to answer). But, instead, they seem to answer a third:

3. What do I need to say and do to get elected and attain positions of power?

As I put it on Less Wrong recently: for large numbers of politicians — probably the majority — the question of whether a proposition is true doesn’t really interest them all that much. They are more interested in whether a proposition will win or lose them votes. If they think it’ll lose votes, they won’t agree with it, and most lack the intellectual curiousity to care whether it is true.

This appears to be the case with Tony Blair and David Cameron, to give to well-known politicians. And in a representative democracy, those representatives who get elected are going to be those who’re best at getting elected, and only co-incidently those who’re best at running the country.

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5 Responses to The problem with politics

  1. Graham says:

    for large numbers of politicians — probably the majority

    AFAICT, not the ones I’ve met. My current impression of politics is that there’s a strong conflict between what’s true and what the electorate want, which is why I have no desire to get involved in it. My hat’s off to those who still try to reconcile those points, though.

    • cabalamat says:

      My current impression of politics is that there’s a strong conflict between what’s true and what the electorate want

      The electorate’s answers to Q2 are often wrong, yes. Imagine if you’re a politician and you think that (for example) increased immigration would help the economy. But you also think incread immigration is unpopular with the voters. Most people in that situation would say what was wrong but popular — more importantly, the politicians who lie are likely to be more successful. So the system seems to encourage the election of leaders who tell people what they want to hear.

      (Of course, telling people lies that they want to hear can be a recipe for success in many walks of life.)

      When I hear or read political speeches, there rarely seems to be any analysis of why the policies they propose will work, instead it always seems to be a mixture of non sequiturs, applause lights and affective death spirals.

      This isn’t because the ideas are too complex to explain in terms ordinary people will understand. (For example Paul Krugman has explained many complex ideas in economics in simple analogies.) Maybe it’s because politicians think voters aren’t interested; well maybe many aren’t but the people who take the effort to listen to political speeches on YouTube or whereever are clearly interested. Or maybe I’m just an atypical voter, and the speech isn’t aimed at me.

  2. Pingback: Libertarians and lefties « Amused Cynicism

  3. Brian says:

    And why, pray, is ‘income inequality’ any business of the government?

    • cabalamat says:

      Mostly because it’s a Q1 issue, that is to say an end goal. To a certain extent it’s also a Q2 issue (i.e. a means goal) in that it can be seen as leading to a more cohesive society.

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