Thursday, 30 January 2014

Why the default political action should be to do nothing...


“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

Dostoevsky (from The Idiot)

One of my very earliest pieces on this blog was to write in praise of idiots, to explain and celebrate the growth of apathy:

Above all we should listen quietly to what this “apathy” calls for – it is less bothersome, less interfering, less hectoring and more effective government. Such people want government to be conducted at their level not to be the province of pompous politicians with overblown and lying rhetoric. And they want the language of common sense, freedom, liberty and choice to push away the elitist exclusivity of modern bureaucratic government.

The point I was trying to make was that these people were quietly getting on with their lives and the actions of politicians and bureaucrats served mostly to impede that quietly getting along. And that it is wrong to tell such folk that somehow they are bad citizens for not bothering to attend the village hall on voting day.

The thing with politics today - or rather our dominant political ideology - is that it believes there are always things that government can do to "fix" the problems of society. There is a belief - bordering on hubris - that if only the right levers are pulled, the right taxes levied, the proper regulations in place and the appropriate leadership employed, if only these things are done then everything will suddenly be better.

The problem is that we really haven't the first idea what we're doing. I listened today to a public health person telling us that inequality creates inequality - it took him longer to say it but this was the gist of his philosophising. There was no logic to this man's argument (although it contained enough buzzwords to get the audience nodding and making little grunts of assent) but it referenced the greatest societal sin of modern thinking - inequality.

The problem is that there isn't any consistent or robust evidence saying that inequality is the problem let alone ways of solving the "problem" of inequality that don't involve throwing the baby out with the bath water. To help us understand this, here's Michael Huemer from the University of Colorado:

Voters, activists, and political leaders of the present day are in the position of medieval doctors. They hold simple, prescientific theories about the workings of society and the causes of social problems, from which they derive a variety of remedies – almost all of which prove either ineffectual or harmful. Society is a complex mechanism whose repair, if possible at all, would require a precise and detailed understanding of a kind that no one today possesses. Unsatisfying as it may seem, the wisest course for political agents is often simply to stop trying to solve society’s problems.

Except, of course, that every day one or other (often self-interested or self-serving) agitator pops up on the radio, TV or in the newspapers explaining, usually with carefully selected facts and figures, that this is terrible and that something must be done. The relevant minister, QUANGO boss or council leader is dragged blinking into the studio to explain just why they hadn't done something and when they plan on doing that particular something.

The problem is that - as Huemer describes - the experts prescribing the 'somethings' that must be done really aren't very good:

Unfortunately, when it comes to descriptive social theory, even the experts’ knowledge is unimpressive, as demonstrated recently by the social psychologist Phillip Tetlock. Tetlock conducted a fifteen-year study in which he collected tens of thousands of predictions from hundreds of political experts concerning matters within their areas of expertise (for example, would the economy slide into recession, would the Soviet Union survive, who would win the next Presidential election, and so on). Tetlock’s finding, in brief, was that the best experts did only slightly better than chance at predicting outcomes. When asked to assign probabilities to their predictions, experts proved systematically overconfident; for example, events predicted with 100% confidence happened less than 80% of the time.

So when the latest policy wonk (from right, left or centre, it doesn't matter) sounds off on the Today programme or pontificates on Newsnight bear this failure in mind, head for your kitchen cupboard and take an appropriate (not too much because those 'experts' say it's bad for you) amount of salt with the wonk's opinion.

So what should we be doing if there isn't some sort of social scientific unified theory of everything? The answer is perhaps two-fold:

1. A great deal less than we do at present - as my idiots know, people just getting on with their lives and not interfering too much in the lives of others is as good a solution as any other.

2. Simpler, more understandable things done locally - those same idiots also want to understand things and the best way to do this is for those things to be discussed in a manner they understand and at a scale they appreciate.

This approach may be a little bit untidy. It may lead to folk popping up on radio, telly and in the papers talking about "postcode lotteries" or "place inequalities" but it has the merit of allowing nearly everyone the chance to be involved. Just as importantly that essential principle - "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" - applies. And most of society's problems are more a consequence of us trying to fix things than of things needing to be fixed.

In the end our default political action should be to do nothing. Sadly the imperative of today's politics demands that this default political action is something. The result is failure and misery not a better society.



Ivan D said...

I completely agree as I am pretty sure do the vast majority of the population. We are sick to the back teeth of being harassed by people looking to compensate for their own sense of inadequacy by interfering in the lives of others

Could you explain this to Dave?

Ralph Musgrave said...

Sounds like you'd enjoy Bertrand Russell's "In praise of idleness".