A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Question Time 23-06-11

In BBC Question Time, Ideology on June 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Part of a Question Time column

David Weber

Another week, another Question Time (and yes, I am aware that the last time I blogged about this was nearly a year ago).

Normally I only write about this show if a particular question, response or comment sparks a chain of thought, and this week is no exception. The comment, or rather comments in question came during the midst of a rather philosophical debate about the nature of U-turns and, if you accept my extrapolations, could be quite illuminating about the reasons for the proliferation of “big government”, and popular support for it.

The Philosophy started predictably enough. David Mitchell came out in favour of a Burkean view of democracy, with MPs and ministers elected to serve with principle, politely ignoring all populist indulgences and doing the best job they can until the next election. The slight flaw that comes with his argument, that it assumes that all U-turns are made on the basis of populism alone, rather than suddenly realising you’re about to make a rather serious error, wasn’t highlighted in Norman Baker’s opposing view, but it was the basic gist of it. However, more surprisingly, it was a point rather quickly lost on the audience.

Often in Question Time some form of consensus begins to emerge about half way through the time spent debating a certain question. What happened here followed this pattern, with three opinions in quick succession expressing a very similar view: 1 U-turn is careless, 2 unfortunate, and 3 either incompetent or unprincipled.

This is the kind of view that, in the exact spirit of such incompetence, manages to be both excessively cynical and naive. Not everyone realises that cynicism and naivity can go hand in hand, and are not mutually exclusive, but it is often the case. Cynics are often so obsessed with finding negative reasons for mistakes that they make naive assumptions. This is such a case, because in assuming that the only reason for constant U-turns is populism, these cynics assume that the MPs and ministers who rule their affairs are near deities in terms of their inability to make unintentional mistakes.

Whatever your view of democracy and meritocracy, any basic critique of government has to start from the assumption that the people inside it are hardly less incompetent or mistake-prone than ourselves. Or, if you really have a more optimistic view than I do, look at it in a more irrefutable way: 100,000 people collectively are no less likely to make a mistake, than 60 million people individually*, if both have the necessary information at their disposal.

Now, many people assume that the only rationale for government is that situations exist where a specific collection of 100,000 people are less likely to make a mistake than 60 million people individually. This isn’t actually true. The qualifier I added — “if both have the necessary information” — makes all the difference. Most areas of government are there because 60 million people have neither the time nor the patience to make decisions based on the necessary information during their own free time, so they employ others to do it. There are also areas where it has been decided, for better or for worse, that 60 million people should not have all the information to begin with, such as defence and policing.

But in most areas of government policy, people can get the necessary information if they motivate themselves enough, or at least something approaching it. So it is often for this reason that governments make U-turns when a public campaign reaches a certain level of intensity, because the collective wisdom of the public has outweighed the limited wisdom of the government. This does not deny the existence of cynical, populist U-turns — I would myself cite the abandoned Forestry privatisation as an example of one. An intense public campaign does not imply an educated public. But it can do.

Now this is why I fear that this combination of public cynicism and naivety is no certain good thing. For it involves the public not just elevating its politicians’, but also its own abilities. And if, despite their regular contempt for the motives of politicians, the public secretly believe them to be superior and wiser beings, then it is not surprising that big government prolongs itself, despite public dissatisfaction. It is this type of mentality that only opposes government for doing the wrong things, or doing things the wrong way, rather than questioning the need for it to do things to begin with. It can be summed up thus: “the world would be a far better place, if only politicians were less corrupt and did X, Y and Z instead of A, B and C”. This is not just a reason for the proliferation of big government, but it is also a reason for the proliferation of incompetent government, and arrogant government.; as governments which don’t admit mistakes are always the former and quickly become the latter. I don’t doubt that some of the blame lies with politicians — pride is a basic human weakness, after all — but I would suggest that if such a public attitude could be overcome, government might be a lot better for it, not to mention more democratic. (I lean towards the Norman Baker, rather than the David Mitchell, vision of democracy.) Like many problems, many of the reasons for big government start with and must be fixed by the public.

And, almost as if to reinforce my suspicions about big government and the public, the last question was about whether to ban live animals in circuses, and not one person who spoke, from the panel or the audience, questioned the need for a full ban. It’s not that I necessarily oppose a full ban, or support the use of live animals in circuses. I’m not exactly sure where I stand. But it would have been nice to have had the facts debated: I might have learned something, and begun to form an opinion. Instead, a politician proposes something which sounds principled, and no-one felt willing to explain their support for this proposal in any detail. Was this to avoid looking heartless on television? Maybe now I am being too cynical and naive.

*Estimations may not be 100% accurate. I’m no more a model of competence than any politician.

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