The worst system ever invented?

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Politics is unpopular, as are politicians. Much of the complaint is highly moralistic in tone: politicians are liars, are corrupt, greedy etc. Of course this is unfair. It is wrong to tar all politicians with the same brush. But, more to the point, moralistic critics of politicians cannot decide whether or not we can live without politics or not. The fact is, we can’t live without politics. And if we need politics, then we are going to need politicians.

First we need to understand why we need politics. In short, we need politics to contain group conflict and to achieve a fair rationing of public goods. We either accomplish these aims by repression (bad politics) or we do it by managing disagreement fairly – good politics. Let’s develop this distinction further.

We need politics not because people are excessively selfish (though there is plenty of that) but because they are excessively moral. Problems arise because we argue about what the definition of morality is, and we demonise those who have alternative definitions of morality. When these divisions cohere around groups, conflict results. This can be a recipe for violence.

Group conflicts cannot be wished away – they can only be contained. There are two ways of doing this. One course of action is repression – to set up a police state. Another way is democratic politics, whereby these divisions are expressed but contained so peace is maintained.

How are differences to be contained with recourse to overt repression?  The answer is to devise a procedure to allow groups to contend for the prize of political power, but within rules. In modern liberal democracies, this is done via elections. But elections only work to ensure that the struggle for political power is peaceful if two conditions are met.

The first is that the winners of such elections do not treat their victory as licence. They cannot round up and jail their opponents, for example. The second is that the losers accept the result and do not contest the result with violence. They are more likely to do this if they are assured that the winners will allow them to fight another day and today’s winners are prepared to be tomorrow’s losers.

Democratic politics usually manages to contain the struggle for power among competing groups peacefully. We take this for granted and fail to realise just what a marvel the peaceful transfer of political power in western democracies is. In this respect, democratic politics is not the worst form of government apart from other forms tried from time to time, it is the best.

The second reason is the fair rationing of public goods, things like health care, a clean environment, a reliable energy supply, high quality infrastructure. In a democratic society, where the government wins power by elections, it cannot simply provide public goods for its own supporters only.

A Conservative government in the UK must ensure that health services are delivered across the entire country, including the parts of the country that didn’t vote for it. When people have a voice, they demand more public goods and governments have to listen, knowing that they are judged by how they well they are perceived to be delivering public services.

But public services are expensive. These services have to be rationed as demands exceed resources. The government does not have the option of retrenching and providing services only for its supporters. A country in which a government merely hands out public goods to its own supporters is likely to provoke resentment among those whom it does not favour, resentment that can spill over into violence. It therefore must seek to ration services and ensure that the burden of rationing is spread reasonably fairly, or at least in such a way that the rationing of public goods is not likely to cause violence from those who feel their fair entitlement has been denied to them.

This is easier to achieve in countries which elect governments prepared to rule within limits. Those who think they are losing out unfairly have the opportunity to vote the government out and redefine the terms of rationing. In many countries, public services are either the preserve of favoured ethnic groups (as in many African countries) or is conditional on those who demonstrate party loyalty (as was the case with many former police-welfare states of Eastern Europe)

In short, we need democratic politics because the struggle for political power among competing groups needs to be contained within peaceful limits and because public goods need to be rationed fairly. The struggle for political power and the demands for ever greater public goods will never cease.

There will always be need for politics with all the fuzzy half-truths, messy compromises and machinations that this entails. Democratic polities frequently fail to live up to these ideals but, when they do, they do it well, better than the tried alternatives. We will develop these ideas further in future posts.

What’s in the name?

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‘Knaves turned honest’ is a subtitle of a poem, ‘The Grumbling Hive: Or, Knaves Turned Honest’ composed by an English satirist and physician, Bernard Mandeville (1670?-1733) in 1705.

Mostly forgotten today, the poem swiftly attained notoriety when first published in 1705 and for decades afterwards. Mandeville’s satire of early 18th Century England depicted a thriving commercial society of bees, the members of which are motivated by the basest of motives, greed, vanity, lust; yet the collective outcome is mutual enrichment, not just materially but in the arts and sciences.

Despite this, the hive succumbs to the fusillades of moralists who succeed in vanquishing sin and inaugurating a reign of virtue. The knaves are turned honest. Sadly, the abolition of sin does nothing to leave anyone happier – without the stimulus of the supposedly ignoble vices, production collapses, innovation ceases and all are left mutually impoverished.

Mandeville presented a paradox that private vices produced public virtues. Mandeville would have said ‘greed is good’. If this offends you and feel like storming off then don’t – Mandeville makes a point that all of us, regardless of our political persuasions, would do well to try and understand.

First of all, consider this: the various kingdoms of the virtuous that have been tried from time to time are not places that most us would like to live. Calvin’s Geneva in the 16th Century, with its burnings of heretics at the stake, or in the parts of Syria and Iraq ruled by the Islamic State, with its beheadings and its exemplary violence, were and are ruled by the men who consider themselves virtuous.

Naturally, I think that the IS is a band of bloodthirsty fanatics but they don’t see things like that. They surely do not notice two horns on their heads when they look into the mirror in the morning, brushing their teeth ( since they don’t bother to shave). Anyway, that is beside the point. The fact is,  there is no straight line between private probity and public morality.

On the other hand, private vices can result in public benefits. We attract people to socially useful jobs because we ascribe high status to these roles – we give these jobs status and prestige, which provide incentives for the clever but vain to strive for them. Just because a surgeon is motivated by vanity and flattery of others to practise as a surgeon, it does not mean that the public is any worse off for it. The surgeon can be brilliant – vain, conceited, but still brilliant. Private vices can produce public benefits – but, just as true, private virtues can produce public hell.

Mandeville’s argument infuriated contemporary moralists not because of his provocative stances (one of the benefits of a commercial society he extolled was its supply of prostitutes) but because of his insistence that vices are not a symptom of a decadent society but the motives upon which a civilised society flourishes. Mandeville’s stock example was that of manufacture of a scarlet coat, an extravagance meant more than just to keep its wearer warm, but something to strut about in and impress others. Vanity creates the demand for the production of such items which gives employment to all manner of people.

What goes for the production of an extravagant scarlet coat applies for the production of organic chocolate and other things that we could go without. We wouldn’t starve to death if we stopped eating chocolate any more than the scarlet coat’s owner would freeze to death if clothed in a plain overcoat. Yet our demand for these things keeps people employed much in the way that books denouncing capitalist vices are great money earners for publishing houses and their employees – not to mention the authors that write for them.

The point of this is not to extol Mandeville. He was wrong on a lot of things, such as his claim that all morality was merely functional, the expression of socialisation and the desire to conform. I don’t think he got that entirely right. Clearly his thinking foreshadows (indeed it influenced) Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ and I don’t share either man’s optimism in self-regulating markets.  But he has provocative insights worth sharing because this has a direct bearing on a blog about moral conflict and politics. Let’s expand on this a little.

As we have seen, there is no straight line between private probity and happy public outcomes although plenty of people in our age assume so, as they did in his. But the world is more complicated than that and that’s what we are going to explore. For Mandeville, politics meant the management of private vices to produce public virtues.

It is vain to try and abolish vice. We are never going to abolish the 7 deadly sins. The roots of conflict are not however so simple as simply to be an expression of our vices. Far from being an expression of our vices, conflict is often a warped expression of our virtues. The management of this conflict does not depend on perfecting our virtues. It sometimes depends on containing them, sometimes with resort to the use of qualities we would consider our vices.

Mandeville was no libertine – he believed that vices should be channelled – we might say sublimated – rather than given unfettered expression. Likewise, the management of political conflict need not rely on amoral principles such as the ruthless application of violence to suppress it. It can be contained in order to ensure that conflict does not descend into disorder or indeed that it produces positive results.

But conflict there will always be. I am not just thinking about the sort of conflict that breaks heads – violent conflict is not in fact the most prevalent form. It comes in all manner of forms and even in a society of angels, in which all its members act from the best of intentions, there will be conflict. Refracting this reality through the lens of religious language does nothing to help us understand or ameliorate this. This is why the spirit of Mandeville, though not necessarily the letter, will inform everything that follows this post.