All bad precedents begin as justifiable measures. ~ J. Caesar
Politics, as we practice it currently, is an interesting business. Particularly in regards to it being a career. By one theory it really shouldn’t and couldn’t be. And yet there are plenty of examples of politicians effectively spending their whole lives working in government. These aren’t civil servants working in the bureaucracy, these are elected representatives. How is that possible? Why is it possible? Are these people so beloved of their electorate and constituents that neither can bear to be parted from the other? Even with half a moments analysis that makes no rational sense. More to the point it makes for quite a dangerous situation where the status quo is maintained beyond its use by date. There are a whole lot of reasons why a politician will keep getting elected time after time which have to do with human nature and human relationship, and I wont go into any of that with this post, what I want to explore here is why this shouldn’t happen.
There is a saying about politics that anybody who is interested in being a politician should be barred from ever being one. Like all such aphorisms, there is an element of truth to the expression. In this instance it is due to the rather unfortunate tendency towards conflation with that other common maxim, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The attraction of politics of course is the lure of Power, why else would you get involved? As for why they would stay involved for year after year, that is down to the politician finding a nice little sinecure where they can enjoy the perks of power, get treated (mostly) with respect, and even get to swing a bit of influence and patronage. Not everyone can be the big chief after all, but even in the lower ranks there can still be a very nice little living to be made. But it is in the top tier of power brokers and power movers that the real attraction lays. Now I suppose it can be argued that anyone who manages to make it to the top in politics has patently demonstrated particular cunning and guile talent and ability, to do so. Although it could equally be argued that what it mostly demonstrates is the appalling mediocrity of the average politician.
Don’t get me wrong, I have lived and worked with politicians and even have a grudging respect for them. There is no shortage of rivalry, determination and competitiveness between them. it is all quite a ruthless game. The losers get ejected unceremoniously and the winners never look down or backward as they climb over any and all obstacles. They are also perforce, good at personal relationships and public relations. So it comes down as much as anything to what you are measuring. But it also comes down to what exactly the end objectives are too. Mostly what happens is the original motives and objectives get lost in the exigencies of the moment and the game overtakes the ideals. To get elected and stay elected requires a style and a commitment of time and effort that becomes an end in itself. What time and energy are left over, often gets swamped by the mundane and procedural, and often also by the stupid and the inane. Dealing with the general public inevitably brings the lunatic fringe out of the woodwork, they almost deserve a medal for having to deal with that. On the other hand, that is the deal they signed up for and they knew it, every job has some crap you have to deal with. I was always surprised however just how big a gap there was between the best of the politicians and the general herd. Why would so many no-hopers get elected in the first place, it didn’t really make any sense. Likewise, after a politician had been in office for a couple of terms and is demonstrably going nowhere, doing nothing, how was it they could end up getting re-elected yet again?
As I have said, that isn’t the direct subject of this post, rather it is a demonstration of the forces and actuality involved in politics. They don’t have to make sense, they just have to be true. They are because they can be. At this point then there is a very strong case to be made that we need to look at making sure that some such things no longer can be possible. Term limits is rule that is practised in some jurisdictions. And I am inclined to think that something like that does need to be implemented. Politicians though, being what they are, are inevitably going to look at finding some way around any restrictions. It is almost like the mentality of the gambler – “I don’t care what the rules are, I just want to win…!” What was I saying earlier about those who want to be in politics should be automatically excluded from doing so? The trouble of course is that you have got to work with what you have got. That is always going to be a problem in that good people don’t need rules and laws to constrain them, and with bad people, no laws or rules will constrain them. Then there is the vast middling masses who aren’t either the great and the good, or the slimy bottom feeders, but are just those who basically end up waving where the wind blows. A comment I heard (from a politician as it happens) is that the official name for parliament was the House of Representatives and it is essentially true; if there are crooks, liars, fools and blowhards out there in the wider community, then they are just as equally represented in the House.
That being the case, is it even possible to separate people and human nature from the process of politics? Well, no is the basic answer to that. You cannot abstract and separate people from relationships. But you can minimise the harm that it is possible to create in a political, administrative and government system by how you structure the environment within which all this works. The problem at this point is that the structural environment within which all this works is the statis-quo. Unless that falls over then there is no chance of building anything different. There are too many entrenched interests with a stake in maintaining things as they are. Until the established order starts hurting too many people and organisations, they are not going to be of a mind to seek or welcome change. The encouraging thing however, is that the changes needn’t be too dramatic or radical – albeit I suppose that depends upon your perspective. Things like term limits, job prescriptions, transparency requirements, separation of powers etc, etc, are all good and worthy measures to be sure and should probably be implemented as far as they go.
But I question whether democracy as we know it is redeemable. There is plenty that is desirable, has merit and should be retained, but there is plenty too that is corrupted and dangerous. A two party state like we currently have has evolved into something little better than a one party state. History will tell us just how undesirable that is. The problems are different problems, but they are just as fatal. There are all sorts of pithy sayings along the lines of; a democracy will last right up until the majority learns it can vote itself largess from the public purse, etc, etc. Another way of say that is that the ideals you start with are fine and dandy right up until people figure out how to game the system. And then, eventually, the only games going on are the ones that play the system. Why work for a living when you can get the system to save your arse from anything, even your own stupidity. Why expose yourself to the rigors and disciplines of a market if you can come up with a cosy little relationship that will change the rules as necessary to save you. The thing is of course, what is the point of having power if you can’t use it to arrange things to your benefit? That is just human nature of course isn’t it. “ I prefer things this way, I have the ability to make it so… so I will. I don’t know what the whole cost of this decision are, but I don’t care what the costs are either, because I can make it so that I don’t have to pay them – you do!” And so we go on making one bad decision after another because it is possible to get away with it. Right up until it isn’t possible anymore, and the only decisions left you can make are bad ones. Which would be where we are up to about now wouldn’t it.
The point here is that power is useful because it means you can use it to create benefits for yourself. If self interest is blind to anything but itself, then the logical conclusion to draw is that it is fairly imperative that vested interests don’t have a say in how decisions effecting them are made. Achieving that totally is practically impossible, and probably undesirable as well, in so far as people who are going to be effected by policy decisions do need to have a voice in the process. But they mustn’t be the only voice, or even the biggest voice. If a system leaves open the possibility that a cabal of self-interest can dominate proceedings, then it is only a matter of time until it does. Our present political system is just such a beast and the career politician is the proof of it. Like a canary in a mine, if you want an early warning that the system has gone bad, look no further than the dead hands on the levers of power. There is likely plenty of sound and fury, but it signifies nothing. For all the noise that politicians make, nothing changes, least of all them. Effective change at the very least involves removing them and the system that puts and keeps them there.
There is a word for this, the word is – Recision.