Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Practical Politician

Two men each wanted to build a house. The first man was in a hurry - he wanted it to be easy. He found a flat, sandy spot. He didn't bother with any digging, he built the walls straight onto the sand. The house was quickly built.

The second man wanted his house to last. He chose a place where the ground was hard. He dug deep foundation trenches for his walls, so that they were built straight onto the strong rock beneath the soil. It was a lot of hard work, and it took a long time - but the house was very strong.

Suddenly, a great storm came. Strong winds blew, and it rained so hard that flood waters swept across the land.

The house built on the rock stood firm, but the house built on sand crumbled into a heap of ruins.

There is a lot of pragmatism in politics these days, looking at what is useful, what gets things done as quickly and easily as possible, how to fix problems, but without any detailed consideration of principles. If it works, it is good enough, is the abiding method. This is not a consistent philosophy, but it has its roots in a very distinctive philosophy, that of pragmatism. Michael Sullivan summaries this briefly:

"A distinctly American brand of philosophy, pragmatism emerged at the turn of the twentieth century from thinkers such as Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Although they differed in many respects, classical pragmatists generally viewed philosophy as a tool to grapple with life's problems.  Pragmatists assessed the success of a philosophy not in terms of its correspondence to ultimate eternal truths, but based upon its usefulness as a practical tool to yield better, more satisfying experiences."(1)

And more recently, Richard Posner has applied it to the principle of laws and how they operate:

all that a pragmatic jurisprudence really connotes--and it connoted it in 1897 or 1921 as much as it does today--is a rejection of the idea that law is something grounded in permanent principles and realized in logical manipulations of those principles, and a determination to use law as an instrument for social ends. (2)

For Posner, "pragmatism is more a tradition, attitude, and outlook than a body of doctrine"; he denies that it has any moral base at all. Instead, he argues that it is value neutral, or as he terms pragmatism - it has  "no inherent political valence." Rather than the more sophistical pragmatism of James and Dewey, which was a complete systematic philosophy (albeit not without problems), Posner suggests that what is needed is more what he calls "everyday pragmatism", a kind of looser approach. This - as described by Posner - is what I believe we are seeing very much in politics today. As Posner says:

"Everyday pragmatism is the mindset denoted by the popular usage of the word 'pragmatic,' meaning practical and business-like, 'no-nonsense,' disdainful of abstract theory and intellectual pretension, contemptuous of moralizers and utopian dreamers."

"Everyday pragmatists tend to be 'dry,' no-nonsense types. Philosophical pragmatists tend to be 'wets,' and to believe that somehow their philosophy really can clear the decks for liberal social policies, though this is largely an accident of the fact that John Dewey was a prominent liberal." (2)

And he goes on to argue that the core of pragmatism is not a thought out philosophy (which can be discarded), but rather "merely a disposition to base action on facts and consequences rather than on conceptualisms, generalities, pieties, and slogans." In this value free decision making, "goodness and badness are to be determined by reference to human needs and interests"

But as Sullivan and Solove point out, this means that the "no  nonsense" pragmatist has in fact values in built into the way it approaches any problems, which is to largely maintain the status quo, and go with the flow:

"Because it rejects any way to discuss the selection of ends, Posnerian pragmatism has little choice but to accept uncritically the dominant ends of society. This result is rather ironic considering Posner's claim that pragmatism has no political valence. Since Posner's pragmatism lacks the tools to engage in more radical social reform, it becomes a rather conservative philosophy in the Burkean sense. It ends up inhibiting the kinds of philosophical inquiries necessary to question the status quo. Therefore, the effects of Posnerian pragmatism are anything but neutral."(1)

Linked to this "no nonsense" idea is that of best kind of leader. Posner evidently believes that there need to be "natural leaders", and their job is to take the reigns of power and make practical decisions. In a somewhat cynical passage, he argues that there will always be those who are suited to power:

"society is composed of wolves and sheep. The wolves are the natural leaders. They rise to the top in every society. The challenge to politics is to provide routes to the top that deflect the wolves from resorting to violence, usurpation, conquest, and oppression to obtain their place in the sun."(2)

Of course, this can be dressed up in much more attractive forms. For example, this is presented dressed up in attractive form as that of the "elder statesmen", who are "people with 'presence'... people who lead with sensitivity, integrity and experience", these are the wise, experienced hands that are needed, rather than ordinary people, who just might know the problems at the rock face from hard experience.

It needs a considerable degree of empathy, after all, for a wolf to see things from the sheep's point of view, but the wolf has learned to be charming, and presentable, in order to get the electorate's all important vote, with seductive promises.

I remember, as if it were yesterday, Terry Le Sueur's speech before he became Chief Minister, where he promised "consensus" and bringing in a wider participation in the Council of Ministers and Assistant Ministers than had been the case, and as Ben Querree noted in the JEP, went ahead and just appointed his old croneys. Saying one thing and doing another is a mark of the practical man, because you say what people want to hear, and you do want you want to do. There is no inconsistency, because there is no principle.

It reminds me of the warning of Jesus: "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves"

It has been a criticism of the States recently that there is too much time wasted in debates, but I think part of the problem is that there is too little listening to different points of view. Question time is a disappointment, not because of the mass of questions asked, but because of the large amount of prevarication, and avoidance of a direct answer.

But to read the manifestos, you would think that the problem lay with those outside the Council of Ministers, who keep raising matters, and note how the agenda is shaped by calling the matters raised "trivial"

Too much time is wasted by the discussion of trivial matters.

Chesterton commented on how what is classed as "trivial" is often so classed deliberately by the practical people in power, simply because they don't consider matters of principle as important, and they give this perception to the public, or as we would say, in the modern idiom, "spin" the yarn that these are "trivial" and "time wasting":

Why do you think of these things as small? I will tell you. Unconsciously, no doubt, but simply and solely because the Front Benches did not announce them as big.

Many propositions or amendments end up with comments by the Council of Ministers, no doubt prepared by civil servants, but whose import is usually, "we have the right answer". The only kind of deliberation that is called for is one that reaches consensus, and the advantages of ideas and policies being tested by being subjected to critical scrutiny is resisted, because there is too great a personal investment in those policies, and too little critical reflection. 

Jesus said: ""Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" Unfortunately Government by practical people largely consists of magnifying specks of sawdust, and hiding the plank behind dark rose-tinted glasses. Lacking principles, ego and its defence is all that remains.

The comments by Sullivan on Posner's attitude to consensus reflect very much a similar kind of notion:

Posner wrongly believes that deliberation must lead to consensus in order to have value. But deliberation furthers important values even when it does not produce consensus. For one thing, there is value in clarifying the conflict, not just in resolving it.  Second, to the degree that we fail to recognize the divergence of viewpoints in our community, we are handicapped in our attempts to bridge the gaps. The failure to understand different perspectives can lead to hasty solutions based on inadequate descriptions of the problem. Third, in many contexts, individuals are at least as concerned with being heard as they are with instantiating their view of the "right answer." (1)

Posner's approach is a cut-price bargain basement version of pragmatism, which is why, I suspect, what he says corresponds quite considerably with the "no nonsense" approach we see in the States, in which a quick fix is preferable to a debate on principles.

G.K. Chesterton noted long before that practical men have the dregs of an incomplete philosophy guiding them, and not any clear principles, and because of that, they make more mistakes:

Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy. (3)

Chesterton argues that what is needed is a return to philosophy, and away from the "no nonsense practical approach":

Political and social relations are already hopelessly complicated. They are far more complicated than any page of medieval metaphysics; the only difference is that the medievalist could trace out the tangle and follow the complications; and the moderns cannot. The chief practical things of today, like finance and political corruption, are frightfully complicated. We are content to tolerate them because we are content to misunderstand them, not to understand them. The business world needs metaphysics - to simplify it.

And against this he paints a picture of what will happen with the "practical man" in charge, devising strategy on the basis of what is practical and business-like, 'no-nonsense' . Given that this was written in 1950, it seems to describe with horrible accuracy the complete muddles we see in the States today, or in other Governments around the world, time and time again.

[As an aside, I cannot help remember in recent times that Bill Ogley was brought in as a Chief Adviser to the States as a practical man, who was adept at "managing change", but he is but one of a succession of "practical men", and exemplifies the type, and where the whole philosophy is wrong.]

I know these words will be received with scorn, and with gruff reassertion that this is no time for nonsense and paradox; and that what is really wanted is a practical man to go in and clear up the mess. And a practical man will doubtless appear, one of the unending succession of practical men; and he will doubtless go in, and perhaps clear up a few millions for himself and leave the mess more bewildering than before; as each of the other practical men has done.

The reason is perfectly simple. This sort of rather crude and unconscious person always adds to the confusion; because he himself has two or three different motives at the same moment, and does not distinguish between them. A man has, already entangled hopelessly in his own mind, (1) a hearty and human desire for money, (2) a somewhat priggish and superficial desire to be progressing, or going the way the world is going, (3) a dislike to being thought too old to keep up with the young people, (4) a certain amount of vague but genuine patriotism or public spirit...

And it is because there is too little introspection, too little looking critically at his own beliefs and desires that the practical man ends up just making short term fixes, and not really having any principles to base this on, so that he (or she) takes for granted many assumptions that should be questioned, because they never consider that their own beliefs could be flawed, because after all, they have no ideology, religious or otherwise, other than a "no nonsense practical approach"

When a man has all these things in his head, and does not even attempt to sort them out, he is called by common consent and acclamation a practical man. But the practical man cannot be expected to improve the impracticable muddle; for he cannot clear up the muddle in his own mind, let alone in his own highly complex community and civilisation. For some strange reason, it is the custom to say of this sort of practical man that "he knows his own mind". Of course this is exactly what he does not know. He may in a few fortunate cases know what he wants, as does a dog or a baby of two years old; but even then he does not know why he wants it. And it is the why and the how that have to be considered when we are tracing out the way in which
some culture or tradition has got into a tangle.

Chesterton argues that we need a return to philosophy, to clarify the muddle, to have some idea where we are going and why, or we will just be carried along by the tide, and by and large react to circumstances with ill thought out ideas, and no consideration of where this is really leading.

As Popper notes,  any action we take is likely to have unintended consequences. Zero ten seemed like a good idea, but more and more businesses, trading in Jersey, but owned outside of Jersey, are escaping paying any taxation; this is the unintended consequence of the policy. The JEP has comment on this that:

Treasury Minister Philip Ozouf has promised on more than one occasion that the massive gap - it is certainly no loophole - that allows businesses that trade here but are not based here to avoid taxation will be closed. It is a fairly safe bet that high-level work on this problem is already under way, but a great many Islanders would now like to see signs of tangible progress.

And so another fix is needed to correct problems that should have been foreseen from the start, if there had not been such a rush to get the new taxation house built quickly. There was really not much idea of how the system would work out, it was simply borrowed from the Isle of Man as a practical measure to avoid breaching Europe's harmful taxation policies, and as usual rushed through. Unlike the JEP, I think it is a fairly safe bet that no work will be under way on addressing the problems until the States force the issue. We have heard promises that "something will be done" so often that I wonder if the Treasury Minister is modeling himself on Mr Micawber.

I'll leave the last word to Chesterton, and why I think we need more critical reflection in the States today. Popper advocated that we should take cherished ideas and test them to destruction, in order that what remains can stand the test of time, and we can plan for unintended consequences of policies, where possible before they arise.

For there is too little of that, too much ego, and defending the citadel of self, and taking it for granted that policies must be right, and the only thing to do with opposition, is not to listen, but to demolish. That's the kind of leadership you get when practical men, with "no nonsense" ideas, are in charge.

Philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out. It is often a great bore. But man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out. The latter is what we commonly call culture and enlightenment today. But man is always influenced by thought of some kind, his own or somebody else's; that of somebody he trusts or that of somebody he never heard of, thought at first, second or third hand; thought from exploded legends or unverified rumours; but always something with the shadow of a system of values and a reason for preference. A man does test everything by something. The question here is whether he has ever tested the test.

(1) Law, Pragmatism and Democracy by Michael Sullivan and Daniel J. Solove, Yale Law Journal. 2003
(2) Overcoming Law, Richard A Posner (1995)
(3) The Revival of Philosophy - Why? G. K. Chesterton, 1950

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