Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Hobson's Choice Of Politicians: Why We're In The Height Of Mediocrity


Get ready to be frustrated more and more in the General Election build up - there will be many politicians that are going to try to appeal to us by promising to offer something 'fair'. Ninety nine times out of a hundred you are going to know that they are not even attempting to talk sensibly or coherently.

If I stood in the street asking random passers by what a banana is, they'd say something like "It's a curved yellow edible fruit", and there would be no disagreement about that description. On the other hand, if I stood in the street asking random passers by what fairness is, they'd say something "The quality of being fair", but there would be countless disagreements about that description in terms of what fairness means in a given context.

Everyone knows what the concept of fairness is, but everyone disagrees about which economic situations are fair and unfair. Consequently, then, I'm fed up hearing politicians saying they want a 'fairer' society, or a 'fair' welfare system or a 'fair' pension system or a 'fair' tax system, because they never tell us what they mean by 'fair' - they just use it wantonly because they know it's a word everyone likes, and everyone will hopefully think them caring and noble.

But what exactly is fairness in these terms? Is something 'fair' if the process by which it arrived is fair? Or is fairness an equitable distribution of something? If a politician fails to explain what he means by 'fair' his statement is ambiguous to the point of being facile. An inequitable distribution need not be unfair. Take a factory as a good example: a floor worker, a supervisor, a manager and a company director have an inequitable distribution of the business's money, but that doesn't make their salary unfair. Equally, stealing from the business in order to give everyone a fair slice of the pie would be an equitable distribution, but the process by which it arrived is unfair.

Cunning politicians and how they try to dupe you
The ambiguity around the word 'fairness' is only a microcosmic example of the wider problem of the dividing glass between what politicians say and what those words actually mean when heavily scrutinised. Politicians are quite used to this sleight of hand rhetoric, because they are taught to speak as ambiguously as possible whilst remaining in the sphere of perspicacity.

If they speak with too much clarity then the electorate will be able to see that they are against the proposal or that they have employed selective information. But if they are too convoluted they will hold no appeal either. So the key to spin is to speak in a way that will get as many of the electorate on their side. And the key to doing this is in making statements that are hard to disagree with but that remain so abstract they continue to be distinct from any coherent policy.

You see, generally speaking the most illogical and fallacious and damaging ideas that politicians come out with are not ideas that make them look immediately senseless and outlandish. They are usually ideas that appear on the surface to be somewhat plausible because they have just enough about them to seduce the average person who is accustomed to only considering ideas in terms of their tangible benefits. To put it another way, if the truth is north, and falsehood is south, most of the dodgy policies that politicians try to run by us are somewhere between north east and east - enough to steer voters off from the best path but not quite enough to have the electorate feel they are going in the opposite direction to what is best for their society.

For two reasons, then, policy-making is likely to make the main parties become more homogenised over time. In the first place because to speak in a way that will get as many of the electorate on your side means choosing from a fairly narrow range of customary voter-friendly phrases. And in the second place, most politicians if they employ a basic standard of reasoning should arrive at more or less the same conclusions about what is the right policy. That they do not - at least not publicly - shows that emotional biases and spin-friendliness are impeding this.

A party really has three groups that are the target of their spin, with one group standing out a mile (this is an oversimplification but not in any way that affects the integrity of the point). There are the two groups who are dyed in the wool either for you or against you, and there are those in between, who make up a variety of comparably amenable individuals. And as I explained in my blog post entitled One Of The Big Ironies Of Blog Writing, there are some you'll never lose, some you'll never win, and a whole assortment of people in between.

Alas, even if we believe it's the inbetweeners that have the most serious decisions to make, and the ones most genuinely open-minded enough to ponder them, I'm afraid the options voters have in front of them is rather like Hobson's choice. Because in asking us to choose between one party or another, we are not being asked to choose between a rump steak and a fillet steak, it's more like being asked to choose between a medium rump steak and a medium-rare rump steak, which is unfortunate if you happen to prefer fillet.
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