Friday, December 13, 2013

"The politics of empirical truths"

This piece, by Peter Saunders, resonated with me and probably will with you:
The politics of empirical truthsidea3

In a lecture delivered at Munich University in 1918, the great German sociologist, Max Weber, outlined the qualities required by anyone considering a career in politics. He ended with this warning: 'Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.'
That counts me out, then.

Having spent the last 14 years working for public policy think tanks in Australia and Britain, I have become increasingly frustrated by the 'stupidity and baseness' of politicians who refuse to acknowledge awkward empirical truths. Even when, occasionally, a politician summons up the courage to tell people facts they would rather not hear, he or she immediately comes under pressure to withdraw their comment, and even apologise for it.  

Rod Liddle recently offered one example in the UK edition of The Spectator. He highlighted an apology issued by the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who had warned of a culture of 'endemic corruption' in certain Asian countries (notably Pakistan) from which many British ethnic minorities originate. As Liddle showed, Grieve's warning was fully justified, for Pakistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the UK Electoral Commission has expressed concern about bribery and vote-buying in certain Pakistani communities in Britain. But although he was right, Grieve issued a grovelling apology.

This problem of thought crime and self-censorship is not limited to issues of race and ethnicity. It extends to discussion of gender and class differences too.

Last week, for example, a UKIP Member of the European Parliament, Stuart Agnew, was censured by his own party after claiming that men outnumber women in top jobs partly because many women choose child-rearing over career building. But he was right. A 2009 survey found only 12% of British mothers want to work full-time, and a 2008 report found two-thirds of working mums would still want to reduce their hours even if improved child care were made available. In Norway, where mothers can choose between free child care (if they continue working) or cash payments in lieu (if they raise their children at home), four-fifths choose to stay home.

Again last week, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, landed in hot water for pointing out that one reason upward social mobility is not more extensive is that some people lack the intelligence needed to perform high-level jobs. Again, he's right - this is something I have been documenting for the last 20 years, and Boris is the first prominent politician in all that time to acknowledge it. But in politics, evidence is often irrelevant. Deputy Prime Minister, 
Nick Clegg, attacked Boris for his 'unpleasant, careless elitism,' Cameron hastily distanced himself from him, and the BBC and newspaper journalists declared open season on him for several days afterwards.

Max Weber wouldn't have been surprised by any of this. He taught that political leadership is about charisma, the mobilisation of emotion among your followers. Evidence can be left to faceless bureaucrats. Populist leaders in search of votes work on sentiment.

If like the CIS, you are in the business of shifting policy agendas through appeal to evidence and reason, this emphasis on emotion and sentiment can represent a major frustration. But as Weber concluded in his Munich lecture: 'Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.' 

Peter Saunders is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. 


Frank Davis said...

you cant drive a car or own a dog without a license but you can vote and have kids without any evidence of intelligence being required . we are doomed laddie doomed I say

Anonymous said...

The biggest and most obvious empirical truth being that all forms of welfare, Dole, DPB, Super, and especially state schools and state healthcare - are inimical with economic progress

However bad the symptoms of abolishing all welfare would be (although frankly I think they'd be great) they are so much better than keeping welfare that any politician who is economically or mathematically literate must be in favour of ending all welfare immediately.

We wouldn't vote for a politician who though the earth was flat; who thought fire was caused by phlogiston; or even who thought the moon landings had never taken place.

Support for any and all forms of welfare deserves exactly the same opprobrium