It’s election time in the UK, time to write down a handy little heuristic rule that I apply to guide my voting habits.
The following will draw from Britain-centric examples, because that’s the milieu I’m immersed in, but the conclusions are general, and may be applied to any political election. The aim is to provide a first, heuristic, one-stop-test to avoid voting against our own legitimate interests. In Cipolla’s terms, the following is a short guide on how to avoid casting a stupid vote.
[If you are offended by what follows, that’s a good thing. I’m writing this post especially for you.]
The starting point is our operational definition of a stupid action. If you decide to perform an action in order to obtain a given effect, your choice is considered stupid when it has the opposite effect: in the real world it makes the desired effect less likely to happen. When voting, everyone can be expected to have a complex mix of “desired effects” in mind, things they wish the next government will make happen; these can be straightforwardly selfish (reduce my taxes, improve the nearby school, etc) or may be more holistic (make our society fairer, happier), but it’s important to start by realising that the two classes of effects can’t be untangled in practice: a fairer society implies that everyone has access to decent schools, while less taxes may (or may not, the causal links are notoriously difficult to pinpoint) have negative effects on many public services, and thus have a negative overall impact on our own quality of life (even if we would have more money to spend). Thus, one can quickly conclude that figuring out what party will bring the best outcome (in selfish terms) is everything but straightforward. For this reason, a solid initial heuristic test has to be useful, at the very least to identify what parties will definitely Not protect our own interests. (If you are in a hurry, feel free to read just the three examples below.)
To propose such a test, I need to reverse the perspective and look at the kind of problems that politicians are expected to solve. In an ideal world, they should all be working in the interest of the common good, and may propose different and incompatible strategies to achieve the same overall result (or may have radically different views of what the common good is!). The test I propose is intended to verify if this is the case: it should help to figure out if a proposed policy is indeed intended to improve the overall well-being of the citizenship and/or of the particular group that it’s supposed to protect. This is because we all agree that politicians lie, but if they lie about their intentions, and we allow their (undetected) lies to guide our choices, it’s almost guaranteed that our vote will be a stupid one.
In terms of general well-being, there is one macroscopic policy problem that all Western governments need to address. This problem first surfaced with the industrial revolution, and is now becoming unavoidably central: technological unemployment. The trend is clear: mechanical machines first, and computers later on, are increasingly able to perform tasks that were usually performed by people. The result is alarming: less qualified and less talented people will find it more and more difficult to get a stable and satisfying work. As a result, a dangerous and destabilising rift is widening in most/all Western Societies. On one side there is a privileged elite that has access to the intellectual resources (knowledge, education, time to think) necessary to discern this and related patterns, on the other side are those that don’t. To use the unfortunate shorthand that is prominent in British culture, you can say that most of the middle and upper classes belong to the former pool, while working class people generally fall in the latter (with as many exceptions as you like!).
A politician in a democratic country needs to attract enough consensus, and would thus be inclined to see the same rift in another light: in terms of public interest, it is clear that reducing the problem and moving as many people as possible into the privileged pool should be the first and all-encompassing priority. However, doing this is exceedingly difficult. On one hand, the technological drive pushes in exactly the opposite direction, the market and capitalist metaphors don’t help either: the correlations between the “wealth-producers” and “intellectual elites” on one side and “normal people” as “consumers” on the other are glaringly obvious. Furthermore, not everyone has an uncontrollable interest in intellectual matters (like I do): lots of people just want to get along a trouble-free life and mind their own business. Thus, a well-intentioned politician has a legitimate and very difficult problem to solve: the aims should be to reduce the rift (1), make people want to improve their knowledge and understanding (2), and keep those that remain on the less-privileged side happy nevertheless (3). Aim(1) is problematic in itself: the more knowledge is accumulated on the fortunate side, the more it would be important to make it spread to the other side; but obviously, the inherent forces towards inequality created by the capitalist system, the market and technological progress all conspire against this result. Furthermore, aims (2) and (3) are somewhat contradictory: the higher the living standards of the working class, the less reasons there are to try moving to the other pool.
This allows to draw one interim conclusion: a well-intentioned politician, one that really wants to improve the overall well-being, needs to constantly negotiate with a macroscopic, unavoidable and very difficult problem.
Such a politician needs to find a reasonable equilibrium between contrasting forces that can’t be eliminated, and is condemned to an ever-lasting need to find decent compromises. I have no doubt that it is difficult, consuming and very stressful. But wait, just a small change of attitude can make the life of our trusted politician immensely easier. What happens if he or she suddenly decides to protect his/her own interests first, and consider the general well-being only the second priority? Oh, suddenly there is no need to walk on dangerous tightropes, many conflicts magically disappear and the ones that replace them are so much easier to handle. The key consideration is this: there is a quite big number of electors that lack the knowledge and resources to figure out what really is in their own best interest. If you are genuinely well-intentioned, this poses a huge problem, it’s something that requires constant attention just to keep it manageable. If, on the contrary, you don’t care too much for the well-being of your electors, suddenly the problem becomes a resource. You can exploit lack of knowledge, and transform your electors into useful idiots.
Second interim conclusion: all politicians face a conflict of interest. On one side, they are expected to care for general well-being, if they do, they condemn themselves to a life of stress and uncertainty. On the other, they can turn their source of trouble into a resource, make their own life much easier, and ruthlessly exploit those that are stupid enough not to notice. Thus, for the elector, the first priority should be assessing how likely your candidate is to fall for the dark side, and happily try to deceive you. In the following I will show that we, the electors, can easily spot policies and rhetorical strategies that are designed to fool us, and therefore we can use this approach to identify with reasonable confidence who should not receive our vote.
Before doing so, however, I need to address the obvious nihilist objection. What if you are utterly disillusioned, like Russell Brand, and think that all politicians are self-interested and invariably only follow the second, easy and dishonest path? You may be entirely right, but the test remains valid: you can still apply it and find out whose allegiance to the dark side is taking a less harmful form. The key consideration is that the general population is always mixed, it will always contain some electors who explicitly or implicitly try to promote well-being through their vote. Thus, the dark-side has a self-limiting element: if all politicians are deceiving scoundrels, suddenly the honest route stops being a problem and becomes a strategic advantage. In the political arena, the pressure to actually promote general well-being has to be positively correlated to the average dishonesty: in the end, this is probably the main reason why democratic systems are never optimal but remain very robust (antifragile?) and in general “good enough”.
There is an additional problem, though: deception can be sophisticated, and we are all biased and error-prone, so a dishonest politician only needs to hide his evil plans well enough, and we’ll still end up casting a stupid vote. It’s an arms race, and the politicians have the upper hand: if they are dishonest, their main preoccupation will be “how to fool the electors”. While our main preoccupations are, by definition, how to land a good job, raise our kids, etcetera. One may again fall into nihilism and conclude “there is no hope, we’ll be fooled anyway”. This may be the case, but it still doesn’t invalidate the test: for dishonest politicians, the ultimate deception is making a their (self-serving) policies so convincingly good for the general public, that no one can spot the self-serving element. The perfect self-serving policy would be indistinguishable from the genuinely well-being serving ones, and what is wrong with that? Thus: actively trying to spot deceptive policies and exploitative rhetoric automatically generates pressure towards better policies. This is why I’m writing this: if all electors got better at this game general well-being would rise, benefiting me, the ones I love and everyone else.
It’s all good and well, but what if the rule I’ve been invoking is difficult, requires vast knowledge, and can be applied only by those that are already intellectually privileged? Unfortunately, I only have a weak answer. I do think that the test can be recursively applied to increasing levels of sophistication, but I also believe that the biggest gains are made by applying the strategy in straightforward ways which require only basic knowledge and little effort.
To show why, the easiest route is to discuss a few examples, and derive general, handy, and easy to apply “evaluation guidelines”. The general aim is to spot contradictions between declared aims and the resulting policy.
First example: UKIP in the European Parliament.
The main aim of UKIP is to make the UK leave the European Union. This stance implies that the EU is inherently a bad idea and that being members will always be harmful overall. In this context, the self-interest of a member of UKIP elected as an EMP is to do harm. Promoting good policies will be against the declared overall good: if you can make the EU useful, then UKIP has no reason to exist. Thus, for a voter, it is guaranteed that electing a UKIP member to the European Parliament will produce no good. If the elected MEP is honest (i.e. does believe that the EU is inherently bad), s/he should oppose all the good policies and promote everything that demonstrates that the EU is a bad thing – in this way s/he will make it more likely that the UK will decide to leave the EU, and thus remain true to the declared aim (while decreasing well-being in the process!). If the same MEP is dishonest, and is actively deceiving us, the same behaviour would still be required: s/he would still want to shoot down any good policies as they would reduce the likelihood of being re-elected. Thus: electing a UKIP candidate to the European Parliament is inherently stupid. The only situation where it may have a positive effect is when also the candidate is consistently stupid: in such circumstances, the only good candidate is one who actively tries to reduce our well-being and unwillingly promotes it.
It’s astonishing how frequently similar patterns appear in politics. I’ll leave it to the reader to check whether the same considerations apply for SNP candidates to the UK parliament.
Second example: privatisations as a money-saving measure.
This one is only a variation of the quasi-ubiquitous UKIP-EU contradiction. If a service is provided on a for-profit basis, some of the cost of the service will have to provide the profit. All things being equal, if exactly the same service is provided on a non-profit basis, it will cost less: it’s primary-school maths. Therefore, when a politician responsible for the delivery of a given service advocates privatising it, what s/he is actually saying is the following: the service delivery is sub-optimal because it lacks the motivation that comes with profit; this degradation is necessarily more significant than the increase in price that has to happen upon privatisation. S/he is also implying that this situation is unavoidable and that s/he can’t significantly improve it: thus, the best choice is privatisation. Once again, the conflict should be glaringly obvious: once the aim is stated, it doesn’t matter if the politician is honest, actually trying to degrade the public service has to be the (not declared) aim, anything else would be counter-productive (in self-serving terms in the dishonest case, but also honestly, if the politician actually believes his/her own claims). Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that in many cases private enterprise works best, but the fact remains: for a politician or public servant, committing oneself to the “private is better” position, especially a-priori, is always against the public-interest (means you are paying them to not-do their job).
Third example: public finances should be managed like your household budget.
This case is marginally trickier, but still plain obvious, if one cares to understand just one fact: states produce money, households exchange it. That’s it. There are good reasons for not wanting the state to produce too much money, and even better reasons not to want the state to directly control a too large a slice of the overall economy, but the household analogy does not hold and does not even hint at the good reasons to limit the influence of the state. The state/household analogy is just flat-out non-existent, it’s like pretending that corn seeds have the same function for me (eat pop-corn) and a farmer (use them to produce more corn, sell most of the result and make a living). Therefore, whenever a politician is using this analogy, only two explanations are possible: s/he is actively trying to fool the electorate, and/or is irredeemably incompetent. In both cases, it won’t be in my interest to elect such a person.
The key aspects of the three examples I’ve chosen should be obvious:
1. Spotting these deceptive elements was easy. One just needs to look for them.
2. Despite this obviousness, these deceptions work. There is no doubt that the current UK election (and who knows how many others) will be decided by what proportion of the electorate will fail to spot them.
Therefore, the test I’m proposing is both easy to apply and useful. All one needs to do is look for glaringly obvious contradictions between the declared aims and the corresponding policies. If they don’t match, the political side that is proposing them is trying to turn you into a useful idiot. You should vote for someone else. In the real world, all parties will make some contradictory claims, so the rule becomes: avoid voting for those that show the biggest, more obvious contradictions.
a. Cipolla is right. Idiocy doesn’t have upper bounds. If this weren’t the case, politicians wouldn’t be trying to exploit such easy-to-spot lies and self-defeating aims.
b. British media (and the BBC in particular) aren’t doing their job. They should be out there, actively looking for these contradictions, uncover them, make them easy to grasp and thus fulfil their job description. Quite clearly, they are playing some other self-serving game.
c. This analysis also makes it perfectly clear why the uneducated classes are drifting towards right-wing parties (against their straightforward interests). Many right-wing parties are becoming really good at the “fooling electorates” game. Berlusconi showed everyone how well it can work. It also seems that parties on the left are losing this race (but they certainly do participate, to some extent).