January 05, 2007

A draft: Intellect and Politics

American Prospect today sketches out one of the most interesting features of modern political speech. Their writer, Dean Baker, argues that there is a distinction between victory in politics and having the best ideas. Its interesting but on both sides of the Atlantic that case needs to be made. In the US Republicans have often argued that their party shows more ideological vigour and argue that the proof of this is that they win elections. In Britain the same argument is seen from various members of the Labour party- but its not neccessarily true.

The problem is that we tend to conflate two separate avenues of work. One is governing- most of which is a reflex activity, responding to crisis (whether real or manufacture) and securing one's place in the political realm. The other is the work of economists, political scientists, philosophers, historians, scientists and civil servants, the real spade work of the manufacture of ideas about how to improve and understand society. Few politicians know much about the lower detail of that spadework- few of them for instance will ever base historical generalisations upon the ideas generated directly by historians- rather they rely on people who transalate those ideas for them into position papers, policy proposals and leglislation. The army of civil servants, lobbyists, activists and think tanks that stand between manufacturers of original ideas and the politicians.

We tend to conflate these two separate avenues of activity- we tend to overrate the degree to which the skill of the politician is to come up with original ideas and thoughts actually, it isn't. Politicians have to take too many decisions, know and observe too much of the world to be an expert on anything. Yes it is an advantage for a politician to know what it is to be an expert, because knowing what being an expert and producing expert work is like means that you can evaluate it better- you can understand the process of collecting evidence (one of the reasons why I would prefer politicians to have done PhDs)- but the core function of the politician is not to be an expert but to quickly evaluate what the experts say and take a decision. The peak of a politician's ability is when he is faced with a crisis and has to take a quick decision with vast importance.

Expertise takes years of hard work on one topic, mastering the evidence, basing your conclusions upon empirical data, understanding languages, learning the mathematics and learning the subject. It takes years to provide that level of depth and thought- and its also fairly inaccessible. The real battles of ideas don't take place in the public square- they might in magazines like the Economist, Prospect and some of the more intellectual blogs on the net- but they definitely don't in places like the Guardian or even the Sun. There is no battle of ideas there.

What we vote on is not whether our politicians have the right expertise- because they don't have any relevant expertise. Its whether we trust this politician to be able to evaluate, understand and present the evidence to us to justify a policy. We also vote on a purely character driven level- is this someone who you can trust to stay calm in a crisis and do the right thing. That's one of the reasons why for example its useful to see politicians debate and dispute- because its a test of how they cope with stress.

Politicians need various skills, they aren't participants in the battles of ideas (which rarely if ever flow along partisan lines anyway) but they need to be via civil servants and others observers and they need to be able to quickly understand and get to the heart of a matter.

This by the way is only the first development of a thought- so please criticise but there is something here I think worthy of consideration.


A. said...

I agree with your observations. In the U.S., as well as the UK, politicians like to use phrases that don't mean anything to define who they are, i.e. "compassionate conservatism," "a message of hope" "two americas".

However, there is also a history, at least in national elections, of sincere policy wonks getting into campaigns to publicize their issues and provide some intellectual heft. The most recent example of this is U.S. politician Newt Gingrich, a PhD and a really smart guy. The sad part about candidates like him is that they usually have zero shot at winning. Nonetheless, I hope people like him continue to run.