Thursday, January 17, 2008

Politics and the hunt for inconsistency

Chris makes a sound observation:

our politics [is] dominated by a rule-based rather than virtue-based morality.
The test of whether a minister should keep his job is: has he followed the rules? It‘s not: has he behaved with dignity and excellence? …
The problem is that there can be trade-off between the two standards. In some cases, rules can stop people behaving excellently… But also, a concern to follow rules and keep one’s nose clean breeds a prissy pedantic obsession with mindless regulations that preclude any attempt at excellence.

This reminds me of the difference between two theories of truth: correspondence theory (propositions are true if they correspond to an actual state of affairs) and coherence theory (propositions are true if they cohere with the other propositions within a system).

The media, bless them, often work with a coherence theory of political reporting. It works like this: Politician says X. Never mind whether X is an accurate factual analysis nor whether it’s a good proposal. Is another politician of the same party saying Y? Aha: split! Had the politician said Z a year or two ago? Aha: U-turn!

It’s so very easy to do. All you need is a record of what people have said, and you just look for areas of incoherence where you think there shouldn’t be. It can be carried out entirely by political reporters or political opponents (or, yes, bloggers) without the need for any specialist knowledge or evaluative judgement – and it gives you a clear, quick answer. It has the added benefit of forcing the accused into responding by either explaining away an inconsistency or explaining why they got it wrong previously, which typically makes them look shifty and/or idiotic. It allows political discourse to float that bit freer of the real world.

The rule-based morality that Chris identifies is a little like that; here, though, behaviour is supposed to be consistent with the rules. Never mind whether they’re good rules, and never mind what non-codified virtues someone’s behaviour might display or not.

In a similar way, policies themselves (when they get a look in) are often judged simply in terms of their (in)consistency with official guidelines, or in terms of some comparator whose meaning in itself is rarely considered (are we 5% less than France? 2% up on last year? ‘Higher or lower?’). This requires you to know some figures, but you needn’t worry about whether they’re objectively good or bad, high or low – and never mind what exactly it is they’re measuring – just how do they fit with the benchmark? The benchmark will do all your thinking for you, and the numbers will give you an air of authority.

I’m blaming the media, and they do deserve blame for promoting this unthinking approach, but it’s politicians who set the targets, write the rules and so on. It’s hardly surprising that people are turned off politics when they see integrity, achievement and debate reduced to box-ticking and facile comparisons.

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