Can politics be rational?

Politics is the art of balancing the irrationality of voters with the irrationality of politicians.

An intriguing TedX talk from US political philosopher Michael Huemer makes a pitch for rational thinking in political decision-making.

He says that voters and politicians should attempt to be rational (I’ll outline his guide below). But his idea of rationality is largely economic. He misses the larger point of politics, which is establishing common values for a society. Many politicians, in their urge to win an ideological point, miss this as well.

There’s plenty of evidence of irrational politics across the ideological spectrum, for example; Dog licensing or chipping to stop dog attacks (it hasn’t); tax breaks to stimulate economies from movie making (it returns less than it costs);  re-examining welfare recipients (core unemployed stay the same).

The way public and political life circles round and round these sorts of problems is frustrating to those who think there is a rational answer to everything.

What is really going on with irrational debates and policy making is that society is venting its collective frustration with the untidiness of life. In the dog attack debate, for example, we’re expressing and establishing a common set of values about safety of our young people and the innocence of childhood; we’re allowing those scared of dogs to be heard; and we’re expressing a dislike of people who own, abuse or fail to train, the sort of dogs more likely to be aggressive.

Dog licensing and chipping may make no difference to the problem, but it does express a societal “value” – an attitude, if you like, about the problem. This expression has a moral role which keeps certain people in check. The fiscal, emotional and time cost of chipping may actually be worth it for this expression. 

Then again, I contend that moral expression of a society’s position through debate is often sufficient. An actual piece of legislation, programme or expenditure is not always needed. 

Most political issues are not actually solvable. Unemployment is a natural occurrence of a market economy (remember Geoffrey Palmer’s ridiculous “zero unemployment” goal?). People like dogs, so they will always have them. People get angry and hurt each other. People have circumstances or states of mind that lead them to steal. The base cause of the problem, or the belief that there is a problem, is irrational in itself. There is no rational answer to that.

There is something much deeper in the human psyche that makes Huemer’s rationality ultimately impossible. There is a deep rooted preference inside each of us for either a “tidy” society or individual choice. This influences our belief system beyond where rationality can reach.

Politics therefore is the art of juggling irrationality so it does not imbalance society.

Politicians need to be wary of being contributors or leaders of irrationality. This could over-balance solutions or society’s moral expressions toward an unfair or unworkable bias.

Here’s some of the questions Huemer thinks people (and politicians) should ask themselves, to establish whether they’re thinking irrationally. It’s illuminating.

  1. Do you become angry during political discussion? If so you are likely to have a bias
  2. Do you have strong opinions before acquiring empirical evidence?
  3. Do your opinions change as you gather evidence?
  4. Do you collect your information from sources you know you will agree with? (you learn most from people you disagree with).
  5. Do you think the people you disagree with are evil or harbour bad intent? (it’s unlikely that a large section of society with a different view are in fact inherently evil).

Answering those questions myself, I have indeed been made angry by the opinions of others. It happens, but less often as I get older. On the plus side, I can identify issues where I’ve changed my mind as evidence mounts. I definitely prefer people that I agree with (that’s a very human thing, and absolutely unchangeable), but I do actively seek opinions and evidence from other perspectives to form robust understanding and opinions.

From that list, the biggest alarm would be if you feel a group of people who disagree with you is inherently bad. Fortunately, I’ve never felt that. I think we generally all have good intentions, just different ways of being irrational.

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