Thursday, 30 October 2014

More politics should be local - if we want people to understand it and take part


Sam Bowman from the Adam Smith Institute has written - taking this piece from Ezra Klein as his text - about ideology, ignorance and information. Sam observes:

The vast majority of the public is shockingly ignorant of basic political facts, with the informational ‘elite’ also happening to be the more closed-minded. The alternative to closed-mindedness may simply be to be extremely uninformed.

I find this interesting because, as I am deeply embedded in an ideological system, I see the degree to which this lack of information dominates. Our debates are couched in terms of what will appeal to the voter (or a section of the voter audience) regardless of whether the position is backed by facts. We even - as evidenced by the Government's response to a Home Office report on drugs - lay claim to being evidence-based when we aren't, usually through a process of circular reasoning and appeals to our preferred 'experts'.

Because modern government is complicated, modern politics is also complicated (and, as Sam says, the world is complicated too - but then it always was). And since most people are not interested in politics, most people are ignorant of the 'truth' about the "basic facts" that inform political debate. The individual's typical engagement with politics is either half-hearted (turning out to vote) or driven by a specific and urgent threat to his interests or in response to something that has damaged him personally.  As Tip O'Neill put it, all politics is local - and there's nothing more local than our own garden gate or our own family.

We choose to be shocked that people don't know how many immigrants there are, how much money we spend on foreign aid and how much it costs us to be a member of the European Union. Yet why should we expect the ordinary voter to know these facts when they are of no significance or interest to them in their daily lives? Indeed, those people can respond with a different set of facts that are just as important (to the individual voter) that we wouldn't reasonably expect the political elite to know - vital information like when the school parents evening is, how much money is there to pay for Christmas or buy a family holiday and where the local farmer plans to build a new barn.

Now the voters know there's a link between the everyday things that fill their lives - work, family, friends, the neighbourhood - and those grand questions debated on the Sunday morning politics shows they don't watch. But they struggle to see that link. They see little connection between the electing of politicians and the bins getting emptied or there being a village school.

However, this is better than the reverse situation - the typical politician or pundit makes no effort to connect the grand and sweeping debate about the economy, immigration and the welfare state to the specific concerns of those ordinary voters. We pretend to understand the link, to see the connection between the decisions the DWP, Home Office or Treasury make and the everyday lives of the people. But in truth there is no link, we are constantly shocked by the sub-optimal (I'm being kind here) outcomes of the decisions taken under our political system, yet fail to realise that it is our technocratic preference for 'evidence-based' politics that creates this problem.

Since we are talking about politics rather than ideological choices, I'll put to one side Sam's suggestion "... that less cognitively-demanding ways of making decisions, like markets, may be even more valuable than we realise", and talk instead about Tip O'Neill's dictum - all politics is local. This means that, if we want to make politics more comprehensible, we need to frame the discussion at the level of people's interests - at the local level. To be parochial, the precise numbers or type of immigrants matters little to people in Cullingworth but the fact of immigration does. And people want to debate the issue on the basis of how it affects them not in the manner of pundits on Newsnight bashing each other over the head with competing statistics.

The solution to our dilemma about information, if not to immigration, is to make more of our politics local, to devolve more decision-making down to the local level and to conduct debate and discussions about political issues within that local context. Tip O'Neill was a Boston Democrat in a state dominated by the Democrats but he knew that, not only was politics contested within his party at the local level, but there was always the possibility of a Republican winning if those locals thought he was the better man. And for all that O'Neill was a national figure, he still returned to the place that elected him - what happened there, what was said to him there, how his voters behaved informed his politics.

Tim Worstall has touched on this issue a few times in talking about Denmark:

We'd want their taxation system as well: the national income tax is 3.76% and the top national rate is 15%. True, total income taxes are high but the rest is levied by the commune, a political unit as small as 10,000 people. At that scale, taxation is subject to the Bjorn's Beer Effect. If you know that it's Bjorn who levies your taxes, Bjorn who spends your taxes and also know where Bjorn has his Friday night beer, then he's going to spend your money wisely. Otherwise he can't go out for a beer on Friday, can he?

And I would add that people talk to Bjorn - not about those grand matters beloved of our ideological punditry but about the wall that's falling down, how granny didn't get seen by the doctor quickly enough and about the smell from the chicken factory. Moreover, the people talking to Bjorn know he can do something to fix their problem. Here in Cullingworth, while I can sort some stuff out for folk, much of what bugs them is decided a long way away by people they don't know who more-or-less speak a different language. And those decisions taken a long way away mean I can speed up granny's appointment or stop the smell from the chicken factory.

If we want a more comprehensible politics we need to get the decision-making (and the money) down to that local level where people really can influence how those decisions are made. This isn't about educating stupid voters or bashing our foreheads at their utter idiocy - the default reaction of our punditry - but about a politics that matters to the voter by actually touching on the reality of their lives. But I guess the pull of those Sunday morning politics shows will win - politics will carry on being incomprehensible, still be irrelevant to the lives of the typical voter. For all the talk of localism and devolution, politics will remain something played with by fine folk a long way away from the voter and those fine folk will continue to think the voter stupid because he doesn't know some statistics or gets a fact wrong.

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