Politics: costs and benefits

I like government. I don’t like politics, but I do like government. I like roads and hospitals and streetlights and police officers and fire and rescue services and clean water and regulation of the products I buy. I even like welfare; I think it is a mark of civilisation to take care of those that need it. All of these areas are in need of improvement, and as welfare is the one that bothers me the most that’s the one I’ll take a second on: welfare is basically unquestioned, and there are “job seekers” in the UK who have been “job seeking” for so long that you really have to question whether they’re really trying. I want to stop that being allowed. That is an overhaul of the current system.

But that does not mean that government is without pitfalls, and in a democracy the biggest pitfall is you. I don’t mean you, Robin, who is reading this. I mean you the participant in a voting democracy. I am writing this on a bus (getting weird looks from a man sat beside me) so I can’t source this paraphrased quote, but: “an ill-informed democracy is no democracy at all”. If you can’t find that on Google, I’ll assume it is mine and I’ll take a new job as a public intellectual. Until then, assume someone much cleverer and better informed than me said it.

But it is true. Democracy is about elevating the naval-gazed opinion of the masses to a point of authority. Incomplete or bad information is the basis of the average naval-gazed opinion. We don’t know how our government works and we don’t know the interests of our politicians. I assume my UK readers are familiar with the political power any unionised group of people have; they are a potent people indeed. These groups can cancel public services and bully governments into giving them their way. The last political to stand up to them was vilified for it (the late Margaret Thatcher). Now imagine that there are companies with equal and greater power than the cartels: remember the political power of Rupert Murdoch? In the UK there is an artificial sweetener in drinks that is illegal in most of the rest of Europe, and it turns out some of our politicians have links with the manufacturers (even if I made that up, you can see that politics is easily open to that corruption).

EDIT: Now that I have an internet connection I see that I have made that up, but the general type of pattern and governmental laziness does exist; the US is slow at banning things that Europe is good at banning. It is mostly behind-the-scenes farming practices, like particular pesticides and animal feeds. In America it is still legal to beef-up your animals with Arsenic. 

Information is power, which is why Rupert Murdoch is one of the most powerful people in the world and why dictatorships try to shut off or censor the internet. But information is not free of bias, and so you and I are the ill-informed voters. While our politicians run a popularity contest, we assume our knowledge is big enough to base political decisions on.

But there are better ways of running governments. The thing governments should be aiming for is “prosperity”. And prosperity is a function of economics, social cohesion and personal wellbeing, personal health and access to health services, safety and crime prevention and some other things, but I won’t bore you with lists. The problem is that neither the ill-informed public or biased and self-interested politician is in the position to maximise that things. But there is a method of maximising these things: science.

Let me get something out of the way: I am not advocating Social Darwinism—the idea of letting the prosperous survive and the poor die off—I made it very clear at the start that I applaud welfare as a concept; I am not advocating scientism—philosophy is not dead! We need to inform the method we use to maximise prosperity with philosophy and humanity. Philosophy is the discipline that can give us a list of criteria to measure prosperity against—what are the things we value?—but it is science that can help us maximise them. If you read the paragraph immediately before this one and immediately thought to dismiss my view with either of the two things this paragraph says I don’t mean, take a look at how you inform your opinions; I shouldn’t have to clarify it.

But we have models based on experience (i.e. evidential models) and we have ideas (i.e. hypotheses) about what does and does not work. There are certain things we do know about maximising the prosperity of a governed people. But we don’t have people who have these things in their best interests.

I had a teacher in school who used to be a politician. He was ideological and wanted the best for people and wanted to rise to a position of power to affect change. He left politics when he noticed he would have to be very hypocritical about his ideas to succeed in politics; to become a powerful politician he would have had to be complicit in the very thing he wanted to change. If he wanted to be true to his ideals he couldn’t change the system, the system would change him. Else, he would stay a low-lying political incapable of making the changes he wanted to.

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