Sunday, August 28, 2005

Dishonesty in Politics

Politicians are notorious for never giving a direct answer to anything. Why do we let them get away with this? Presumably they only do it because it works for them -- perhaps they can't risk providing their opponents with a juicy quote to exploit, so instead they merely waffle. But this can't be good for democracy. We should be looking for ways to change our political culture so that sincerity is rewarded and disingenuity discouraged. We need to get the incentives right.

This means that journalists need to be willing to ask the hard questions. And if the politicians start to give misleading or waffly answers, they need to be called on this, interrupted, and told to state their position clearly or else shut up. If politicians are obviously being dishonest, then analysts shouldn't hesitate to point this out, loud and clear, shaming the liars and forcing them to own their words. (Blogs are generally good for this much, if nothing else, as demonstrated by recent posts on Frogblog and No Right Turn, for example.)

Just as important, we should be willing to accept politicians who own up to making a mistake. When Labour makes a u-turn, they shouldn't try to hide the fact. They should stand tall and say, "Yes, our past policy was stupid, for reasons x, y and z. That's why we've changed it to this new policy which avoids these problems because of p, q and r. We're here to promote what's best for the country, and we're not too proud to let our past mistakes get in the way." (Of course, if they can't offer any such explanation -- say, because the new policy is actually no better, but is simply an opportunistic vote-grabber -- then they shouldn't be proposing the policy in the first place.)

My opinion of a politician would actually improve were they to make such a frank admission. But I guess I mustn't be the average voter. Besides, no doubt partisans would jump all over such an admission, and use it to paint the politician as "incompetant" or a "flip-flopper" or some other nonsense. To any bloggers reading this who would be tempted to behave in such a fashion, I ask you simply: please don't. You're damaging the quality of political discourse. Just don't do it.

Perhaps late-night blogging lends itself to misplaced idealism, but I simply cannot comprehend why we tolerate such unclarity in our political discourse. Surely our current political culture is not by necessity so muddled. We could make it better. So why don't we?

Politicians should be exposed not just for dishonesty, but also illogic. An example that springs to mind is Rodney Hide telling National supporters to vote ACT instead because National "can't govern alone" and so will need ACT there as support. But of course what matters isn't the number of parties, but the number of seats obtained by the left vs right blocs. If National loses seats to ACT, that will do nothing at all to make a National government more likely. Rather, what National needs is for the center-right to get as many seats as possible, however they are distributed. So Hide's argument is simply illogical. (There are complications regarding the 5% threshold which I won't get into here. Suffice it to say that while there are possible situations where it would benefit National to sacrifice some of its votes to ACT, that is an entirely different argument from the idiotic one that Hide was presenting -- which quite literally consisted of nothing more than the premise "National cannot govern alone", from which he tried to derive "so National supporters should vote for ACT instead". And he gets away with it too. Pitiful.)

There are some issues that are genuinely difficult, and we can't expect any easy answers to them. But for others, it really isn't that hard to come to the truth if one is willing to think critically. Politicians and partisans defend obvious falsehoods all the time. It shouldn't happen. They ought to be exposed as either stupid or dishonest. Once we're all agreed on the easy questions, then we can concentrate on disputing the hard ones. And if we continue to hold each other up to the high standards of reasoned discourse, then perhaps some real progress might be made. So why aren't we doing this?


  1. One reason many politicians do not answer questions with directness is that they are trying to hold together coalitions of people (the public, their own party, other MPs) with very different views. Often they do this in order to attempt to create a new consensus, and they need to keep everyone together while this is done, ie to gain time. The verb used for this behaviour is not "temporize" for nothing!

    Equivocation is not necessarily evidence of duplicity or stupidity. It can be evidence of great leadership.

    An example: When Winston Churchill became leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party and Prime Minister of the UK in May 1940, he was not the unanimous choice of his own party. Indeed, he faced strong oppositions from some senior party figures, including in the Cabinet he inherited. Some of these people favoured entering peace negotiations with Hitler to allow Britain to leave the war. Churchill adamantly opposed a separate peace deal, but if he had said this loudly and often at the time, he could have easily not remained leader very long. Accordingly, he pretended to his Cabinet to entertain the possibility of peace negotiations, while making sure such negotiations would never happen. In the meantime, he was able to shift his main protagonist and strengthen his support in the party, and in the country at large, to create the consensus at the top in favour of continuing to fight the war.

  2. Being a trained philosopher/mathematician, and always uttering logically consistent statements, is not a prerequisite to enter politics. It's probably a hindrance most of the time, unless you are a highly charismatic philosopher.

    I'm with Solzhenitsyn on this one -- in popular culture, perception is way more relevant and 'groovy' than objective Truth.

  3. Politicians should be capable of thinking clearly. Otherwise they have no business running the country.

    I agree with you that honesty and clarity are "probably a hindrance" to succeeding in our current political culture. In fact, that's precisely what my post was about. This is something we ought to change!

    The aim of politics should be to achieve what is best for our country (and humanity in general). That doesn't need to be 'groovy'. It does need to be reality-based. Closing your eyes won't make suffering go away.

  4. It seems the easiest way, confusingly, is to demand less and to be les critical; of slipups

  5. ACT passing the 5% threshold and/or winning Epsom is incredibly important to the centre-right. It is sufficient by itself to justify what Hide said. National supporters giving ACT enough of the party vote to ensure they stay above 5% can never diminish the likelihood of a centre-right government and does a great deal to increase it.

  6. Sure, like I say, one can make threshold arguments here. But that's not what Hide said, and having a true conclusion does not "itself justify" making a bad argument. (Compare: "the moon is made of green cheese, therefore grass is green." Not a good argument.)

  7. You said:

    "If National loses seats to ACT, that will do nothing at all to make a National government more likely."

    This is not true because of the threshold. If National has enough party votes for 50 seats and ACT enough for only 5, then ACT will miss out and National will get 2 seats redistributed to it for a total of 52. The other three seats will probably go to parties of the left. If enough National supporters vote ACT then the combined ACT/national total would be 55.

    This is not a far-fetched example. There is a strong possibility that something very like this will happen.

  8. You've taken that quote out of context. I was clearly talking about National losing the same number of seats that ACT gains.

    I did agree that one can make arguments based on the threshold. (Though one might just as well argue the opposite: given that ACT is likely to miss out, best not to waste your vote on them.) My point is that Hide did not make such an argument. He was not arguing that one could boost the total size of the centre-right bloc by helping ACT over the threshold. As I described in the post, he was instead arguing that you should vote for ACT because MMP requires coalitions, and "National cannot govern alone". As if the sheer number of parties (rather than the total number of seats) in a bloc had any intrinsic importance.

  9. It is actually possible that 5 x 10% parties might actually tend to do better than 1 x 50% party (long run) in as far as if any scandals come out they only risk 10% of their vote each and the other parties can pick up the other 10%. There are also arguments for economies of scale of course.

  10. What ever is that word that describes for example a"poitician that only tells the people what they want to hear?" I'm sure there is one...I just cant think of it right now..It is an actual legitimate word, anybody help?


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