Monday, October 31, 2005

Utilitarianism

Like Clinton’s “it’s the economy….”, there are some arguments that really need to be suffixed by the word ‘stupid’. Like “eating people is wrong, stupid!”

In one of the best blog postings I’ve read, Shuggy reminds us that torture is wrong and the use of evidence obtained under torture is barely any better. This is where weblogs can come into their own. Newspapers are often too focussed on current concerns to step back and make these kind of arguments.

I’d suggest that a similar argument can be made about what passes for political realism. The view that ‘perception is reality’ in political communications. On the one hand, you are more likely to succeed in politics if you take focus group findings seriously and if you don’t pick a fight with any identifiable interest group (particularly one with media support). On the other hand, this hardly fits within the model of representative democracy – one where you govern with the interests of the nation as a whole. It hardly makes for optimal policy-making either.

I’d urge anyone who wants a successful career in politics to read Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to win friends and influence people’ In it, he outlines a view of the world that is both misanthropic and generous – depending on your mood when you’re reading it.

Misanthropic in that it focuses upon a very pessimistic view of human nature – one that is fickle and overwhelmingly self-righteous and self-centred. Generous in that it urges us to go out and find out more about the perspective of others, and to challenge our own lazy assumptions.

I’d also urge anyone who wants to live in a country that is well-governed to find a way of providing a political counterweight to anyone who has adopted Dale Carnegie’s views.

This, I would suggest, is a useful mission for Labour’s internal opposition. Where the Labour government has failed, I would argue, is when it has felt unable to challenge vested interests – particularly those in the media. Labour appears to have taken the view that it can get a lot done as long as it follows a path of least resistance. I’d suggest that it should have tried to do less, but to do the things that it does more effectively. This would involve more fights, but it would result in better policies.

Shuggy is probably a bit closer to the well-trodden paths of political science than I am (I last studied it about ten years ago), but I’d be interested to see if there is anything about utilitarianism in political communications out there?

PS: A few weeks ago, I said I didn’t agree with Trevor Phillips assertion that "Pim Fortuyn's anti-immigrant movement flourished in the Netherlands because the centre and left refused to acknowledge that their laissez-faire attitude to integration had failed." This is exactly what I mean here. I doubt if Trevor actually does think that the way that the UK has absorbed millions of immigrants over the past fifty years is really anything other than a remarkable success – one that few would have predicted.

What he really means, I suspect, is that the more relativist extremes of multiculturalism have been found wanting. That an unattractive bit of territory has been vacated by most politicians (with the honourable exception of people like Ann Cryer MP).

This has allowed gutter-rags like the Daily Mail and the Express to generalise this into an all-round failing. For Trevor, perception is reality. The media and the political class are elemental forces.

PPS: Also worth a look - Shuggy’s observations on consociational democracy in Iraq

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