Sunday, December 16, 2007

Can't Think of a Name for this Post

Under my very brief definition of idealists, Tim, offers a not quite so brief but very interesting series of points on idealism among politicians:

The discussion was in a slightly different context to you: we were thinking not about what defines an idealist, but about how a politician who was also an idealist would act. The motivation was Australian politics, and whether Rudd's perfect 'positioning' in order to win the election would be dumped after winning power. 'Positioning' purely in order to maximise your vote (which seemed like Rudd's strategy) seemed to us to be almost the precise opposite of idealism, and we were curious as to whether Rudd would in fact dump those carefully positioned policies in favour of more ideal-driven (or maybe ideological) ones.

As far as I know, political science contrasts idealists with 'realists', but I'm not sure I ever understood that label properly. It seemed to us that the guy at the other end of the spectrum - the purely vote-maximising politician - could instead be labelled a 'cynic', and that the two types of politicians inhabiting either end of the spectrum were defined as follows:
I’ll just butt-in here to note that a better term than cynic is probably demagogue.
An 'idealist' politician begins their choice about what policy stance to take with an existing set of ideals, or moral rules. The idealist's policy stance is then determined by their interpretation of which policies they think best satisfy those ideals, given the nature of the world (the facts, the science, the ways people respond to incentives, etc etc).

A 'cynic' politician begins their choice about what policy stance to take with the sole 'ideal' of maximising their own chance of re-election / their own consolidation of power / their own benefit. The cynic's choice of policy is determined by their interpretation of what the majority of voters (or the 'median voter') will vote for or accept.

So both types 'derive' a policy stance, but from fundamentally different goals: ideals vs self-interest. Anyone else on the spectrum can be characterised by the relative weight given to 'broad ideals' (the sole goal of an idealist) versus 'the self interested ideal' (the sole goal of a cynic).

My friend pointed out that (as a stylised fact) the policy stance which wins elections is that which attracts the vote of the 'median voter'. Consequently, by a natural selection process, idealists will be weeded out unless the policies they derive happen to sit close to the median. The remaining politicians will differ only in their interpretation of where the median voter lies (and thus what the 'self-interest maximising' policy stance is).

However, you would only subscribe to this argument if you believed that politicians (idealists and cynics) were able to have NO effect on what the voting population, and thus the median voter, wants. Idealists might survive if they could convince the median voter to support a policy stance which is close to that which is 'derived' by the idealist from his set of ideals. We both agreed that there is plenty of evidence of politicians (unfortunately mostly of the cynic type) influencing the median / swinging voter.

If that all sounds a bit obvious and boring, it's because we think in spectra, graphs, and optimisation problems, which are all useful for making trivial stuff look complex.
I am afraid I must strenuously disagree: this is neither obvious nor boring.

Indeed it set me thinking. And reminded me of two things that I’ve wanted to blog for a while.

First, “you would only subscribe to this argument if you believed that politicians (idealists and cynics) were able to have NO effect on what the voting population, and thus the median voter, wants.”The sad thing is that too often it seems that centre left politicians do lack precisely this confidence. As a despairing Dick Morris once wrote of Bill Clinton: "He misses something elementary about leadership . . . You [Clinton] don't always have to tack to the polls. Our extraordinary eloquence and capacity to mould opinion can change how polls read and where the wind blows."

I’d be lying if I said that, while I respect the limits political realities place on short-term progressive change, I don’t feel the exact same way about the Labour party at present. Just occasionally (the teenage Sri Lankan asylum seeker being a good example; seabed and foreshore being another) it would be nice if they actually took a stand rather than withering in front of perceived public opinion.

Second, on the subject of positioning on the political spectrum, Tim’s point reminds me of a formulation that I came up with for trying to evaluate differing degrees of radicalism on the left.

I figured that you could plot any one person’s apparent position on the centre => left spectrum by adding the following vectors.

1. Their vision of utopia – what a just world would look like under ideal conditions.
2. Their vision of a humanly possible utopia – something that might be achievable in the long run taking into account the many fallibilities of humanity.
3. Their vision of what can plausibly be achieved in the short term.
4. What they view their role in achieving this.

I’m not sure that point 1 matters so much other than in the broadest sense. But 2,3 and 4 are critical.

Let’s use Rudd to illustrate this.

Under 2, I suspect that his vision of a humanly possible utopia is some kind of social democratic state, with the market and the state interacting to ensure that we live in an environmentally sustainable world where people are free to choose how to live their lives within reason while also being afforded thorough social insurance.

Under 3, I imagine that, in the short run – given factors such as the right wing tilt of much of Australian media, the ability of economic elites to resist radical reforms and Labor’s need for wealthy donors – Rudd’s vision probably starts to move considerably to the centre.

Under 4, because he has chosen to be a politician (rather than a lobbyist or an academic say) he moves further to the centre still – eager to reduce the number of points which the opposition can target him on.

I think that the fact that Rudd has, in the safest earliest days of his term in power, taken some vaguely bold liberal steps not all of which did he broadcast in advance of his election, shows the gap between 3 and 4.

Tim’s post also makes me think that I need to add a point 5 to my list: How genuine the person in question is. Some people do cynically crave power as an ends of its own rather than as a means to a more noble ends. How genuine a person really is also going to affect the stance they take.

Finally, I ought to note that there will be feedback between the points if level 3 causes you to say something long enough you may end up believing it at level 2 as well.

Ok – that was all a bit much for Sunday afternoon really.

For some light relief we have a Howard v Rudd rap battle. (Hat Tip: The Standard)

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