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Getting Beyond "Politics as Usual"

By John Henry Calvinist
Created 10/07/2006 - 21:18

by John Henry Calvinist

Before I start here, I think it advisable to warn all readers that I am militantly contemptuous of what usually passes for "policy debate" on both left and right, since I have (genuinely) tried to learn from those who (usually) pass for democrats, conservatives, radicals, realists, libertarians, socialists, classical liberals and neo-liberals, and, perhaps most of all, from free-thinking hybrids who (rightfully) treat such labelling with the contempt it deserves.

Because we actually can do far, far better than the bankrupt clich├ęs of "left" and "right" (or even more precise labels) and, without playing the "ideology" game as commonly understood: let alone shorn of common-sense safeguards - as both anarchists and libertarians are all-too-willing to do. The key to this endeavour is simple: always keep in mind that politics must remain "the art of the possible" - but, also remember that human history is long, diverse, and full of fascinating experiments in this area - and that good scholars have spent lifetimes tracking down the evidence re these.

So, we're not actually captive to the received "wisdom" of our time and place, in our understandings - unless we, thoughtlessly, succumb to the incessant mouthings of our media pundits.

A word on same might be in order at this point. Accompanying the rise of democracy itself was a countervailing argument - formalized by Plato - as to the incapacity of the commons to wisely govern. Revived (in a modified form) once universal suffrage reared its ugly head in recent times, it is now usually encountered via the "mass culture critique" peddled in different versions by the left and right.

This is the "ordinary people are brainwashed by the media, and only vote on self-interested grounds anyway" mantra, that the political class (including the mass media) use to justify their dumbing-down of debates and systematic cosying-up to anyone with power, rather than the poor slobs that are "supposedly" the deciding factor in a democratic system.

Even if true - and Diana C. Mutz's groundbreaking research proves otherwise - the argument betrays a profoundly misleading "understanding" of democracy as a process which, unfortunately, extends to the electors at large. As Mutz shows, they fully realize that their individual experience cannot simply be generalized, and thus rely on the media for this service - even when they radically distrust same - which is where shock-jocks and the like find their opening.

Inter alia, the simplest thing any leading opposition figure with both real guts and sense could do is praise the "masses" for their civic spirit - but then, go on to explain exactly how the democratic process itself was designed to aggregate/sift personal experience, remind the audience that the mass media is controlled by the powerful, and is thus not necessarily a trustworthy guide to broader issues, then:

Ask them to vote on personal experience, alone!

To forget any/all bribes, spin, and the pontifications of the media - and just go with what they actually know. Are they (truly) better off now? Are they really happy with the changes they see in their immediate society/environment? Are all their worries - genuinely - being properly addressed, or, merely fobbed-off with excuses, or mis-managed in an incompetent fashion?

Because democracy (which Marx, incidentally, despised in any/all forms) will do the rest, at least for most policy areas.

There's also no "defense" against this tactic - should the voters adopt it - and, it's simple, clean and workable. Trouble is, it does demand that you trust the electorate (as a whole), and such trust is vanishingly rare in "our" political elites.

The lack of any widespread awareness of this fundamental aspect of democracy - or of the empirical work disproving the "mass culture critique" - is symptomatic of the narrowness of our political culture and of its almost total disconnect with the leading scholarship in a whole variety of areas that suggest many feasible (and straightforward) ways out of our current malaise.

For example, ruled as we are by a narrow (and outdated) economic ideology - in which markets have to be "free" - there is little awareness outside scholarly circles that the cutting-edge economic work that has garnered all the prizes of late operates in much more rugged terrain, such as experimental economics, market design, the outcomes of imperfect information, and other approaches that actually test theory against experience. Even economic history is making a comeback, after decades in which it was rarely taught to undergrads. So, my hint to all reformist governments - try sacking your Treasury and Reserve Bank staff in toto, and hiring younger economists that have bothered to learn from the real world and those theories that take it into account.

After all, that'd simply be "market discipline" at work, now, wouldn't it?

Similarly, there is now a wealth of comparative work on different electoral systems available - which strongly suggests that multi-member electorates produce much better political/social outcomes - particularly reducing ethnic/religious tensions, and forestalling the domination of major parties by self-reinforcing cliques. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be like such domination - so most voters never get to hear about such simple reform measures that could easily improve their lot.

Another one: more egalitarian wealth distributions - nice in themselves - also have positive side-effects in a myriad of areas that are generally ignored. Instead, we're "informed" that "we" can't afford the tight labour markets which would, naturally, produce such outcomes - and the metastasis of bureaucracy makes most (rightly) distrustful of tax and redistribute schemes, leaving a double-bind in which the rich simply get richer, and dissipate their gains in financial speculations, which mainly serve to undermine the "real" economy.

So, next time some "economic" bigot tries to tell you about labour markets, gently - or otherwise - inform them that Adam Smith, no less, considered they were inherently biased against employees - and remind those on the left that "welfare" and "collective bargaining" are the major policy issues dividing the poor and middle-class (particularly small business), thus delivering the political process to those who would keep them divided. Regulating labour markets to ensure full employment - sans collective bargaining and such things as termination payments, but with a genuinely decent minimum wage - would provide everyone with real job security, the option of voting with their feet - and leverage for better pay and conditions across the board which would then flow-on to increased "consumer confidence" and, hence, flatten business cycles, particularly benefiting small businesses that suffer the most from these.

Reduced crime rates, a much smaller "welfare" budget/bureaucracy - the positives multiply, and, are clearly attested-to in the historical record. We'll either learn do it sooner, or later - with much unnecessary fear, suffering and instability along the way - and, remember, a safety-net should be something to land on, not be trapped in.

We could also take a hint from the ancient Greeks - and try anti-bureaucratic approaches to regulating public affairs - instead of pontificating about them like neo-liberals do, whilst handing over effective control of things to private bureaucracies, in the shape of huge corporations. We could use the stock market to break those up - without stealing from anyone - into much less fearsome creatures that couldn't dominate their respective markets. Because, the correct word for what we've got now, in a whole variety of areas, is "oligopoly" - and making excuses for same has intellectually crippled neo-classical economics almost as much as its disconnect from really-existing markets.

There are also the full possibilities of randomly-chosen deliberative assemblies to consider, as these could prove essential in correcting the biases generated by formally-representative systems. As well, we might also want to re-think federalism - based upon the fact that there is no real reason why the administration of different spheres of activity needs to be based upon the same territorial divisions, except to centralize political power, which was what federalism was designed to undercut in the first place. Keeping bureaucracies small is the only way of controlling them, after all - so, maybe we ought to reconsider regional centralization as well?

There are a multitude of simple revenue-neutral (or revenue-positive) measures that governments can take to improve matters for all of us - the historical record is full of examples that can be fruitfully adapted to current conditions - but most would take a genuine willingness to bite the corporate hand that feeds, as well as imagination, and some wide reading/careful thought about feasible mechanisms, and possible political alignments between those currently divided by bogus ideologies.

That's why we'll have to do it ourselves - as citizens - and hope to haul some of the media and politicians on-board, eventually, when they finally wake up. Because policy is far too important to leave to the professionals.

But, after all, isn't that merely what true democracy entails?

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