Politics: Some Underlying Issues


As far as I can tell, the general view of politics, from those outside it, is that (a) it is a dirty game, and (b) it has very little to do with the real world.  My one line response is that (a) it is only as dirty as we allow it to be, and (b) while the power of politicians is limited, they can still make decisions which change our futures - for good or bad - so ignoring politics is probably an unwise decision.

When we look more closely at it, politics seems to be essentially a tribal battle, mainly between those on the 'left' and the 'right', with each tribe being primarily motivated to gain victory and to defeat or disarm the other tribe; looking after the nation and implementing your own wonderful policies are fairly low down on the list of priorities.  And this can lead to disillusionment with the party establishment, whichever party you belong to.  Of course, if you gain status within the party, it is much harder to acknowledge such realities in public.

However, I think the underlying reality of our political battles is often much more nuanced than we generally recognise.  You can't simply put people on a left-right axis, as if there was only one political choice we make: there are numerous issues we constantly have to balance, and agreement on one issues does not automatically lead to agreement on the others.  The reality is that our allies in one political battle are often our enemies in another - which is why all party leaders struggle to hold their parties together.

If we want to have constructive conversations about political issues, we need to be clear what we are talking about.

For example, it is often noted that the far-left and the far-right are often indistinguishable form each other; I recently heard about a far-left extremist group turning into a far-right extremist group.  If you look at the professed ideologies, this seems absurd - but if you recognise that extremist groups, whether of the left or the right, have very little mainstream support, so they will all tend towards top-down control (issue 10 below) and the imposition of the 'correct' ideology (whichever it is) upon the people, they will also favour control over freedom (issue 5 below).  The reality, as I see it, is not that the left and right are indistinguishable, or that they somehow 'meet' at the extremities, but that extreme groups tend to have very similar positions on other issues, which in practical terms will come to dominate over the principles they are, in theory, disagreeing about.

The Issues

Issue 1: Stability and Change

It seems obvious that there are many things wrong with the world, which need to be changed.  Of course, the questions of exactly what is wrong and how it needs to change are tricky details, our understanding of which tends to depend upon our experience and perspective.  But almost everybody recognises that there are injustices which need to be righted, so some things need to change.  Many people work hard for little reward, while a few do little but reap massive rewards, which seems wrong to many people.  Considering these things, our sense of justice tells us that change should be both significant and quick.

It is equally obvious that there are many things which are right with the world.  Yes, there are people starving in famines and drowning in floods, but (for most of us in the West), while our lives (and the lives of all those around us) may be hard and frustrating, we still have work and schools and prisons and hospitals.  Our rubbish is collected and our roads are repaired; life may not be easy, but we have a roof over our heads and food on our plates.  There are many things which are right with the world; it is easy to break something that is working, and hard to create something that is new - especially if we want the new system to provide all the benefits of the current system, and more.  It is far easier to break things than make them, so stability is needed.  Change may be needed, but our sense of caution requires that any change should be both incremental and slow,

We evidently need both perspectives.  Of course, those who feel they have little to lose (mainly those closer to the bottom) will tend to favour change, while those who value what they have (mainly those closer to the top) will tend to favour stability.  But those who favour change often underestimate the value of what they already have (it's much easier to focus on what you don't have), and those who favour stability often underestimate the fragility of the status quo (it's easy to ignore the anger and frustration of those who feel excluded and cheated when they don't belong to your social network).

This issue explains why in the UK the Conservative Party is much more united than the Labour Party.  Of course, it is partly because Labour fights its internal battles in public, while the  Conservatives fight them behind closed doors.  But it is also because the people who want stability are inevitably, for the most part, working towards the same end, while those who want change will be fighting for a hundred different - and often conflicting - changes.

Issue 2: Individual and Community

People in the West tend to focus mainly on the individual.  You, the individual, have rights - which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Our schools tell us you will succeed if you pass your exams, politicians tell us you will benefit if you vote for them, our religious leaders tell us you will go to heaven if you believe what they say, advertisements tell us you will be happy if you buy their product.  And, as we all remember, Margaret Thatcher once famously claimed, "there's no such thing as society."

People in the East tend to focus far more on the community.  You have obligations - to your parents, to your family, to your country.  It is accepted that the individual must make sacrifices for the good of the group.

Both perspectives are important: my identity depends not only on my own unique knowledge, skills and talents, but also on the place I come from, on the groups I belong to, on our shared history, culture and customs.  Arguably, the West needs a greater emphasis on the importance of the community and the East needs a greater emphasis on the importance of individual liberty and fulfillment.

This issue can often be seen being worked out in the familiar tension between variety and conformity, between focusing on being different to everybody else, and focusing on being the same as everybody else.  This is not only important for people - the same tension exists in communities:  each community must express its (corporate) individuality in some way, to distinguish it from every other community, even if that identity simply comes down to 'we are the people of this town'.

Issue 3: Equality and Reward

For some people, a fair society is one where everybody shares equally in the products and benefits which are provided.  For others, a fair society is one is which individual contributions are recognised and rewarded.

This links with issue 2: individual and community.  Should rewards be distributed on an individual basis, with those who contribute most receiving most in return, or should they be distributed on a community basis, recognising that everybody contributed in some way to the final result?

People generally argue for different principles, depending on context, and depending on where they stand within the context.

The question here is about what is right, not what is effective - because people can judge effectiveness in many different ways.  Some people think the American system is right, where one person can make vast amounts of wealth, while the majority live in severe (comparative) poverty.  Others think the Scandinavian system is right, where taxes and other systems limit the rewards of the people at the top, but generate a much better quality of life for the majority of the population.  Others, of course, seek something in between - and some want to allow greater rewards than the current American system allows, or to achieve greater equality than the current Scandinavian system achieves.

Issue 4: Proactive and Reactive

How do you balance the costs of being proactive, working to prevent problems which may never happen, against being reactive and only working to mitigate the harm caused by actual problems?

Do you run your health system as efficiently as possible (so all the doctors and nurses are working all the time, and all the hospital beds are full) or do you run it as effectively as possible (so there are always empty hospital beds and staff available to be called on in case they are needed)?

In Switzerland, houses are built with nuclear fallout shelters, which may never be used; in the UK, citizens are told to hide under a table in the case of nuclear attack - a far cheaper strategy, but far less effective should the need arise.

Issue 5: Freedom and Control

How much (and in what areas) should people be free to do what they want, and how much should their behaviour be limited for the sake of others?  We normally accept limits on our behaviour in order to prevent harm to others (you have to pass your driving test before you are allowed to drive on a motorway, for example); we also accept limits to prevent us from making others feel bad (hate speech, for example).

Questions of freedom and control play out in quite distinct areas: in some countries, there is little or no freedom to express political views which oppose the government, while in others there is a great deal of freedom; in some cultures, sexual activity is strictly limited to married couples (and, unofficially, prostitution), while in others single people have a great deal of sexual freedom; in some cultures, sexual activity is strictly limited to heterosexual couples, while in others people have much more freedom who they have sex with.  Different cultures differ about which areas of personal freedom are important.

The issue of freedom and control can also be seen as the issue of freedom and protection, or freedom and safety.  The control is always exercised, as parents invariably explain to their children, 'for your own good'.  We limit how fast you are allowed to travel on the roads and motorways in order to keep you (and everyone else) safe.  We limit what you are allowed to say in order to protect your feelings and reputation from other people's hate speech and malicious gossip.

[See also: Freedom and Responsibility]

Issue 6: Effort and Achievement

When rewards are given out, should this be done on the basis of the amount of work put in, or on the basis of the outcome achieved?  This will determine many things - not just how resources will be distributed, but also more intangible things such as praise, recognition and respect.  We tend to feel differently about this in different settings: we often give children prizes for effort, but in adult sporting competitions the prizes are only for the winners.

This issue is further complicated by the fact that we rarely have a completely level playing field, so some people will have to work much harder than others to achieve the same results. 

Issue 7: Challenge and Comfort

Do you want to be comfortable, or do you want to improve?  Do you want to work, or take things easy?  Are you driven, or laid back?  These questions play out at the level of groups and societies, as well as the individual.

Issue 8: Fixed and Flexible

How much do you need to plan so that you can be in control of the circumstances of your life, the things which happen to you, and how much are you happy to be flexible, to 'go with the flow' and respond to the opportunities and challenges that come your way?

And when you have created a plan, how determined are you to stick with that plan?  When circumstances change, and assumptions prove to be wrong, is keeping to the plan a demonstration of consistency and character, or an example of stubbornness and stupidity?

Issue 9: Process and Product

Is justice fundamentally about the correct process being properly followed, or is it about the correct outcome being arrived at?  Is it about the journey or the destination?  Given the choice, would you prefer to have an open, democratic process which produces a bad outcome, or a small elite group which plans in secret and produces a good outcome?

Of course, we are not faced with exactly this choice, but we are faced with this question of principle when we have to choose how a group should make its decisions. Any system will, at times, produce unfair outcomes, and the correction of any such errors will involve some arbitrary decision. In the UK, the Home Secretary has certain powers to review decisions by the courts, so when and how often should such power be used?

Issue 10: Top and Bottom

Who should have the ultimate power?  Should the important decisions flow down from a person or small group at the top, or should important decisions be made by the people discussing and deciding for themselves?  There are benefits either way: the person at the top can focus a great deal of attention on understanding the issues and devising strategies, both of which may be complex, but they may also confuse what benefits them for what benefits the group, or simply not care about what happens to many 'unimportant' people.

The UK is a compromise here: the people do not vote for their wishes to be carried out: they vote for MPs, who they trust to make decisions on their behalf.  A Member of Parliament is a representative, empowered to speak on behalf of their constituents; they are not a delegate, required to implement the wishes of the constituents.  Of course, if an MP doesn't do what the people want, the people are free to vote for someone else the next time - but in the meantime, the MP is free to act as they see fit.

Issue 11: Immediate and Distant

Should decisions be made in the light of the immediate circumstances or to further a long-term plan?  Do we spend and borrow or save and invest?  Do we spend a little to patch up the failing infrastructure, or commit to the creation of expensive new infrastructure?  Democracies generally struggle with this, as the electorate normally votes for the party promising to make their lives better in the short term, so governments feel that they have to deliver immediate results, even if they want to be remembered for implementing wise long-term policies. 

Issue 12: Justice and Compassion

The core of any system of justice is that it treats everyone the same - so the law protects the weak by limiting what everyone is allowed to do.  And outside the legal system, we value fairness - again, treating everyone the same, giving everyone the same opportunities, and the same rewards for the same work.

But we also value compassion - giving food to the starving person, spending time with the lonely.  And compassion is all about giving people what they need - which is not the same as what the next person needs.  Giving a loaf of bread to a hungry person is compassionate, but it is not just: if you want to be just, you cannot pick one person to receive food, you have to give a loaf of bread to everybody.

The tension between justice and compassion is also seen in the punishment system: we want everyone who commits the same crime to have pretty much the same punishment, but we also want individual circumstances to be taken into account.  Blind justice is cruel, and pure compassion is unjust - we need to balance the two, and different people will want the balance in different places.

(If you would like to explore this tension further, I suggest that in the Hebrew scriptures, what I call 'compassion' here is better understood as 'righteousness', the Hebrew 'tsadiyq' - which is not really about being good, but about following the right path - God's path - to life in its fullness.)


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  • I think perhaps one of the biggest issue that does, and probably always has, diminished political discourse is that so very many people opt out of it, either by refusing to seek engagement and understanding and simply reacting to events that are in the news ('oh I don't trust any politicians, they're all in it for themselves"), or by putting their heads down and simply living their lives, either ignoring the big issues or simply hoping others will sort it all out.

  • A good summary of issues and influences upon decisions and their making thereof.   Concerning Issue 11, this could also be summarized as Short Term vs Long Term, as per Steve's impassioned discussion on Zoom.   The issue of a "planning horizon" of at most four years caused by the maximum duration of an Administration or a Parliament tends to force decision-making into a 4-year time frame.  No politician is likely to support a programme of change taking longer than that.   Why?   They want to reap the benefits of their own policy within the current administration so they can extend their political lifetime and influence.   This is purely human nature: politicians are human and want to maximise their own benefit and their appeal to their base - their voters and supporters.

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