It is common for people to state that politicians are dishonest because they do not deliver on their promises. It is also common for people to state that policymakers are naïve, since they introduce policies without thinking through their consequences. In this post, let’s give them more credit and consider other reasons for this disconnect between the things policymakers say, what they do, and what the outcomes are:
Who Wants to Look Powerless? A particular feature of Westminster systems, in which power appears to be concentrated at the centre, is that we expect ministers to be able to deliver on their promises. Yet, they can only deliver the impetus for policy change, such as the legislation and/or resources to devote to a solution. In almost all cases, ministers do not have the time or cognitive ability to see a policy solution through from beginning to end (partly because there isn’t a beginning and end). I suppose it’s possible that some ministers could try to argue that their powers are limited, but they would be more likely to be portrayed as weak than honest. Compared to the UK, the current Scottish Government is often quite good at stressing its desire to set a broad strategy and accept the legitimacy of bodies such as local authorities to go their own way. However, it still tends to be criticised by opposition parties as weak and, in some cases, as a government that can’t deliver on its promises. This portrayal would be supercharged at the UK level built on the ‘government knows best’ tradition.
Who Wants to Say How Far They Would Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered? Policies generally produce winners and losers. More money spent on one public service or social group generally means less money spent on another. We don’t see it often because policy decisions and areas seem compartmentalised – more money on the NHS seems like a good thing because we’re not sure about what service gets less as a result. There is also little incentive for governments to raise these ‘greater good’ comparisons or back them up in any meaningful way (in fact, departmental ministers compete with each other for funds, and few actors in government are employed to assess the overall picture). Nor is there an incentive for individual ministers to show how they count up the value of the pros and cons of a policy. Perhaps ideally, we would want them to say, for example*:
- How many people in poverty they would accept in the short term to allow long term benefit and employment reform.
- How many people they would be prepared to detain inappropriately under the Mental Health Act to protect how many people in the population.
- The extent to which they are prepared to suspend the rights of, or provide inappropriate treatment to, immigrants to satisfy domestic demands for immigration control.
- The extent to which the police can use excessive physical force to control the population and particular social groups within it.
- The number of sex education and related websites they are prepared to see blocked unintentionally to ensure the intentional block of sites hosting pornography.
In other words, many policy aims will require hard choices about how far we want to go to carry them out. Should we accept a policy’s limited application/success to safeguard something else (like human rights) or limit costs, or just plough on to ensure success in terms of our original aims? Should we try to articulate in advance our levels of tolerance of unintended consequences? Again, it would be remarkably open and honest, but it is difficult to see the incentive for ministers to wonder aloud about the consequences of their aims or explicitly accept the pain of some for the gain of others.
The same can be said for advocates of particular policies. It is rare for people to advocate the pursuit of one policy at the expense of another (bar discussions of funding when, say, people want to replace the funding of nuclear weapons with public services). So, we tend to have stilted conversations: we say what we want but not what how far we are willing to go or what we would be willing to give up. In that sense, we are just as dishonest and stupid as elected policymakers.
*it was very hard to come up with non-judgmental examples, so note the political nature of my examples. Other examples, from a libertarian viewpoint, could include: how many home fires are you willing to accept when you introduce a ban on smoking in public places? How many ‘sensible’ drinkers would you punish to protect ‘problem’ drinkers?