Thursday, 18 March 2010

Politics: Can't Someone Else Do It?

Politics is concerned with the legitimate exercise of power. Both the competition for power ('who governs?') and the exercise of power (governance) depend on the key concept of legitimacy, since in politics power is acquired by authority not force, by persuading people that you have the right to be in charge, not hitting each of them over the head until they give in.

But legitimacy, as the late great Bernard Williams pointed out, is determined not by universally objective criteria - such as the concepts of justice or democratic credentials so dear to the hearts of contemporary political philosophers - but by whatever the people in a particular society consider legitimate. For example the question of why one person should govern rather than another - why is he the legitimate authority? - can be answered in some societies by reference to their birth order in a certain family. A society's particular understanding of legitimacy also determines how political power can be exercised: its appropriate goals, procedures, and style. Liberal societies have been admirably successful in constitutionalising workable democratic criteria for the legitimacy of political office holders, but they have been rather less successful with regard to what such office holders can do. In particular liberal societies have imposed such excessive and contradictory requirements on the legitimate exercise of political power that governance has become an onerous duty that politicians would rather escape than perform.

In a feudalistic dictatorship the criteria for the legitimate exercise of power are very basic: don't lose big wars (national honour), don't let the people starve (survival). That's about it. So legitimate governance is rather easy (although for the same reasons, good governance, which requires more effort, will be rare indeed). But consider the unfortunate politicians in a liberal democracy. Liberal societies expect much more from them (e.g. health care for all) and delegate more power to do so (e.g. in the form of taxes: 40-60% of GDP spending across the OECD). But that power is massively constrained.

Liberal politicians are supposed to make choices on behalf of the public interest and society's collective moral values while meeting tremendously high standards for legitimacy that make such decisions difficult, divisive and exhausting! Everyone is crying out about not being properly heard; that the constitution really means x, or the opposite; that such and such must be done, NOW; that marriage should mean one thing, or another; that building a nuclear power station in their town is an outrageous injustice .....and on and on. No matter how honestly and openly democratic politicians try to make  decisions of any importance, huge numbers of people will completely despise them and question their legitimacy (and integrity, intelligence, and sanity). Unsurprisingly, politicians don't want to take on the challenging and thankless responsibility of making those bitterly contested choices, even though that is supposed to be their job.

The result is a flight from responsibility and the consequences can be found in the political sclerosis and vacuity pervasive in liberal democracies. Politicians dodge even trying to make difficult decisions that might upset some people by refusing to make any. Some countries are worse than others - Greece's politicians (until recently) seemed to have done hardly anything in 30 years except organise the Olympics - but all are at least partially guilty of avoidance behaviours. The main forms of avoidance behaviours are the transfer of power to other domains without real authority; and the transfer of authority without power to procedures. In their rightful place, these are good things - we would call them liberalism and the rule of law - but when they are employed to escape political responsibility they become vices.

Liberal societies make extensive demands on their politics and so tend to transfer quite a lot of power to them. However, in contrast to the stereotype, democratic politicians often appear as anxious to transfer power away from themselves as the people are to give it to them. They like to outsource difficult choices to other groups. Economic management, employment, and health-care can go to the market ('neo-liberalism', in so far as it really exists, may be as much a convenient way for politicians to avoid making difficult decisions as evidence of their ideological faith in markets); values and ethics can be managed by religious and ethnic groups (under 'multi-culturalism'); controversial legal issues like abortion can be farmed out to judges; etc. Not surprisingly these non-governmental bodies appreciate the gift of power. Also unsurprisingly, most of us think something is wrong in having such important issues decided by democratically unaccountable bodies.

The trouble is that these other actors come to have power without legitimate authority, while the politicians retain legitimacy by avoiding making any use of it. And no-one has responsibility.

Politicians also like to transfer authority to procedures managed by bureaucracies. So instead of them having to make difficult choices - with winners and losers - some technocratic procedure is allowed to take over most of the process of proposing, evaluating, and implementing policies. For example the consumer-price-indexing of welfare payments - based on technical criteria and assumptions about what constitutes destitution - is allowed to replace political decisions, and debate, about what society owes its poor.

Such procedures may be good tools for governance, but they are poor masters because they have inherent biases which they are themselves unable to consider. It's like asking a hammer how one should put up a bookshelf. Take a random example from the UK. The owner of Heathrow airport wants permission to expand to increase passenger-turnover. Some transport sub-committee undertakes to write a technical report on future air-transport needs for Britain. The cost-benefit analysis indicates that an extra runway at Heathrow will increase aggregate social welfare. Of course it does. What counts as a cost or benefit depends almost entirely on how easily it can be measured within the framework, and passengers (even imagined future ones) are much easier to count than 'site of natural beauty'. A planning process begins and grinds along to its inevitable conclusion. Lots of people are very upset, but who can they really complain to? The politicians deliberately gave away their authority to the procedures, and the bureaucrats themselves lack the power to do anything but run through those procedures no matter how ridiculous the final outcomes.

Again, neither the politicians nor the bureaucrats are responsible.

When democratic politicians stop trying to live up to the responsibilities of their jobs, and we the people stop insisting that they do and supporting them in their efforts, it is not surprising that they stop taking themselves seriously. Hence the vacuity of so much present politics: are 'dangerous' dogs and cigarettes really so important that our politicians have to act on them right now, while fundamental issues of ethnic integration, the ageing workforce, rising inequality, etc are indefinitely fudged and delegated elsewhere? Or are they just easy, in comparison to the hard choices we won't let politicians make anymore?

But those hard choices don't go away just because liberal politics prefers to avoid them. That is why the perceived failure of liberal politics is so dangerous. For if we cannot get anything important done in accordance with our liberal beliefs about legitimacy, that undermines those beliefs absolutely and opens the door to alternatives. And there is no shortage of would-be politicians with the skill of identifying  and exploiting society's fault-lines and with strong ideas about what should be done about 'the problem of immigrants', etc. Such politicians and their followers have no stomach for the tortuous consensus building processes of legitimate political decision-making - they only care about doing things their way. But they don't need to, because it is liberals themselves who have shown that such standards as fairness, public deliberation, and civility just get in the way of getting anything done. When liberal politicians stop working so does liberal politics, and the crazies may win by default.


  1. I never thought of it that way. You're like a prophet! ... But isn't it that, power without legitimate authority, combined with the profit-margin involved in politics that really created the current predicament?

    You can't pin the whole thing on laziness, when laziness and greed are so much more destructive together.

  2. I agree that letting financial markets regulate themselves also set their greed free to cause havoc. Our laziness plus their greed.

    But I'm not sure what you mean by 'the profit-margin'in politics. If you mean that all politics is necessarily corrupt - for sale - then I disagree. Most politicians in a liberal democracy are decent people, and on average more public spirited than most of us. That's because in a liberal political system office holders are required to fulfil the role of their office, not their personal coffers. Compare that to a non-liberal democracy like Kenya or Nigeria where political office is pursued and employed almost entirely for personal gain.

    Of course this liberal ideal can be partially corrupted - especially when we the people allow it to become so. In the US politicians are required to raise enormous amounts of money to fight elections and can only do so by pandering to special interests - like the finance industry. That leads to political decisions being made not according to properly democratic considerations about the public good, etc, but effectively outsourced to self-serving industry insiders who nowadays have the opportunity to actually write the laws that the legislature debates!

  3. Profit-Margin: Citizens United V. Federal Election brought capitalism just a little more lock-step with what's left with our supposed liberal democracy. But the people did not decide that case, the Supreme Court did.

    Ideologically, I think that you are right to say that our leaders are "more public spirited than most of us" but I think that just the act of being in office these days leads one to lose perspective of their ideal role in politics.

    Take the example of the American politician who chose to serve in public office out of the desire to do something good for the community, as you’ve inferred that they mostly are, two reasons why ‘the people’ are not necessarily governing ‘the people’ and how it is that our capitalist democracy has created such a situation:

    1. Assuming most public officials are expected to have a good education, on average, that person would not necessarily come from an underprivileged background (though I admit some do). Receiving a good education, or even an average one, depends on whether or not it can be paid for or fought for. There are very few individuals with the ability to fight for it, kudos to those that do, but most educations are paid for, and handsomely. This reduces the politician’s ability to have a deeper understanding of and corresponding empathy for the underprivileged demographic in general. There could be an understanding of and sympathy for the demographic but mostly cognitively, the deeper emotional attachment is much less. Ideology is also developed without this bias usually before someone chooses to take public office. This serves to perpetuate a lack of understanding or ability / impetus to understand such demographics needs. Hence, a public welfare system that continues to only patch holes in the problems, as opposed to realistically attempt to solve them. They are not actually suited to the task. This is really only in addition to the magnitude of the problem to begin with, as you mentioned in your piece, but is an example of how our free-market, deregulated attitude has slowly corrupted our idealized liberal democracy by affecting the average demographic (and therefore perspective and understanding of the larger populations problems) of those that choose to serve in public office and succeed. I could probably go on at (longer) length on this one, but will stop here with it.

    2. Having to create the amount of money and media power essential to become elected essentially removes a person from the average American experience, if they were even present there to begin with. They subsequently become even more removed from that experience through being elected into public office and then by being wooed by lobbying interests. Overwhelmed by information (and all of the above that you mentioned in your piece) a politician then has to rely on secondhand information to make important decisions. Secondhand information, being its own industry now, is hard to measure qualitatively and only serves to keep the politicians removed. Access to such information also having become a privilege, perpetuates the problem.

    Being so far removed from the actual problems that they are trying to solve and so far immersed in the capitalist nature of our political system, politicians may be “more public spirited” but interest in serving and understanding of the public becomes warped by the circumstance required to be elected to do so.

  4. Unfinishedscript. Thank you. You raise important questions that go much beyond the limited (and abstract) issue I tried to address in the original post. I can't reply as systematically as I would like but I so have a few remarks I hope are relevant.

    Competent politicians require a thorough and deep education in how their country works that is much more advanced than the average person. E.g. what the constitution says, how it has been interpreted, and how it works; important historical events and people; how laws get passed and implemented; etc. That's why I think Christine O'Donnell/Sarah Palin types are unlikely to really get anywhere. They are just too ordinary in their level of ignorance for most people to trust them in charge of such an important machine.

    I agree that meritocracy is rather elitist and self-perpetuating (although there are important exceptions such as the impoverished backgrounds of both Obama and Bill Clinton). I agree that this tends to a lack of sympathy with the poor, but I think this extends to the middle-class too. I tried to analyse this in another post:

    You might be interested in a recent book on American politics - Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson that takes a similar line of analysis: US electoral politics is less important to the governance of the country than by persisting organisations representing vested interests. See here for one review:

  5. I agree quite a bit with your points which could very much lead to entirely new discussions (like a feminist take on Christine and Sarah: short version: booo!) but not very impassioned ones, since it seems we have a lot of similar views here.

    Thank you very much for the links :) That book may or may not already be on my list, will have to check. Of course, there is a lot out there right now in that vein. I'm hoping to cull the best of the best. We'll see who comes out on top once the dust settles.

  6. Tom,

    You have won our $200 third place prize for politics blogging. Please email me so I can arrange to send you the money.

    And congratulations!

    Best wishes,



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