Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Morals of a Politician

One of the reasons why I adopted the nom-de-blog "Cicero" was because I saw- indeed still see- parallels between the fall of the Roman Republic and our own times. Although, after the accession of Octavian, Rome remained nominally a Republic with the Emperor initially simply "first citizen", in reality the political system based on Roman Liberty was overthrown. I strongly fear that although the nominal forms of Parliamentary Democracy may survive, the principles, indeed the guiding spirit, of Liberal Democracy are being eroded to the point where our freedoms are being taken away.

I see the challenges not being so much the direct threat of dictatorship, although in truth the nascent Russian democracy has indeed been overthrown by a dictator, but from a more corrosive and collective mixture of ignorance, hypocrisy and greed.

The fundamental problem is that many political platforms are not created based on evidence, but on prejudice. 

A good example has been the policies that have been adopted by successive governments towards the use of social drugs. Since the end of the "permissive" 1960s, it has been the collective wisdom that their are great social ills that result from the use of psychoactive drugs. Certainly many of these drugs are both highly addictive and can be often fatal, either through overdose or the physiological damage that long term repeated use may cause. The problem is that the policy that has been prescribed- prohibition- has not merely failed, it has arguably created more pernicious social ills- through placing the trade in the hands of criminal gangs and undermining the politics of smaller countries, from Afghanistan to Peru. The cure seems worse than the disease. Sure enough the political weather is being made by vested interests and not by, for example, healthcare professionals. The Liberal Democrats have championed evidence based drugs policy- and been abused by the twisted journalism of both left and right for being "soft on drugs". The drugs crisis is not made one ounce easier by the failed policy of prohibition, but it does appeal to the prejudices of the ignorant.

Politicians, by definition, are not experts- they are lay supervisors- yet in order to understand the pros and cons in modern policy, our political leaders need to have a skill set of knowledge that few actually possess. This has led many to conclude that society has become too complicated for democratic government to offer effective leadership. The example of China or Singapore is offered- technocratic elites who can take decisions based on detailed or arcane knowledge. This, for me, is a temptation that must be resisted at all costs not least because it is the end of democratic government as we have known it, but it also removes leaders from having to account for their decisions, because by definition they have arcane knowledge- and the result would be corruption and waste- as it already is even in the only three decades since the emergence of a more open China since 1975.

For the fact is that political leaders in a democratic state depend on the knowledge of their electorate. An ignorant electorate creates ignorant politics. An electorate that is not prepared to hold their leaders to high standards also creates a compromised political system. The current fashion to hold all politicians in contempt is equally dangerous, for few will want to serve if their every move is regarded with suspicion. The fact is that our political system requires accountability, but it also requires an element of trust- if the trust fails, the system falls. Yet that trust must rest on the electorate themselves understanding, openly or at least tacitly, the compromises that are required in order to take policy decisions. On the one hand the system should respond to political will, on the other hand the political will needs to be based upon more than mere populism- it must rest on serious and informed debate.

This is where I am so concerned. I have heard supposedly educated and informed voters express deeply ignorant and indeed wholly mistaken opinions and yet express them as unvarnished truth. They may be encouraged in this by a bigoted and prejudiced press, but in the age of the Internet, there is little excuse to be as ignorant as so many people can be.

In the end the morality of the politicians is our own morality, and their collective wisdom is our own wisdom. Unless the voters themselves take responsibility, then they will have their rights eroded by propaganda and vested interests.

That is exactly what I see happening now. The fault lies in ourselves.

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