Busting the myths that smear political debate

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 16 March 2012 in Diary
Tories don’t pursue austerity because they’re sadists, and lefties don’t believe in welfarism because they’re naïve – taking the debate back to fundamental points of contention might just create a more engaged and politically-active citizenry

Lefties are naive idealists and right-wingers are callous and self-interested. Politicians are all self-serving careerists and political debate is pointless because you can’t do anything about it anyway.

If you believe in the goodness of people then you’re blind to the fact that ours is a culture of benefit scroungers. If you think that self-interest can sometimes be a positive force, then the poor are your enemy.

These myths smear our political discourse. They are the popular and lazy characterisations of left versus right and they are an affront to democracy.

It’s not naive to believe that individuals have the capacity to act without self interest. Nor is it an iron-clad law that the carrot is always better than the stick. For lefties, a comprehensive welfare state may ensure that people are comfortable taking career risks, which may boost employment as people take jobs to which they’re better-suited and more qualified for. And for right-wingers, it’s the fact that most people have a tendency to prioritise themselves over others may justify a more financially-incentivised benefits system.

Politics is a much more delicate art than the oft-cited brute ‘facts’ make it seem. The question of the welfare state is just a passing example of the ignored complexity of our political discourse. Arguments are had about minute and petty issues, when really the contention lies much deeper.

On Tuesday the eminent conservative philosopher Roger Scruton spoke at a Policy Exchange event on environmental philosophy. The theme was that environmental policy fits more neatly into a conservative paradigm than into a left-wing one. I went to the event receptive to the, but Scruton obviously understood his audience, and knew there would be some fundamental premises accepted by most of the room. So without justification he claimed that it was a natural human instinct only to change your actions if you’re forced to internalise your externalities. Humans tend naturally towards selfishness, it seems, and he invoked Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons dilemma in order to support this.  

Now think tanks can’t really be accused of wasting time on minute and petty issues, and there were good reasons for Scruton’s presumption of ideology, but a leftist who doesn’t share that ideology was never going to be convinced. Scruton would have needed to argue on a more fundamental level to stand a chance of doing that.

Politicians can often be seen to fall into a similar trap when struggling in an argument. “Instead of wasting time playing party politics, let’s just focus on the issue, shall we?” comes the reproach. As a criticism, this fails on all counts. It may not be party politics they’re playing but they’re certainly playing politics, even if it is the more-non-partisan-than-thou trick. But worse, and more destructively, it ignores that the policies with which you fundamentally identify (ie party politics) generally underpin all other political disagreements.

Politics is often accused of being distant and removed from real life. Re-introducing a bit more fundamental ideology to mainstream debate – questions about what compels us to action and how we interact with other people, for example – would vivify politics. Through this we may better understand that people are different and complex – and that our ideological opponents might take a different view with which it could be instructive to engage.

Tags: Policy Exchange, Roger Scruton, Welfarism

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