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On constraints in politics

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When I tell people that I work from home, they ask me how I have the discipline to do so. The answer is that I don’t. I just have a habit: I start work every weekday after breakfast without fail, so I can often get a few hours done before I’ve started thinking. If I were to wake up every morning and ask “what do I feel like doing today?” I’d never do any work. I use a similar rule in my investments. Mostly, I make a direct debit into a tracker fund each month and an Isa contribution every November. If I had to do otherwise, I’d not save enough or make all sorts of silly stock picks. And I do the same for exercising: I go to the gym four times each week at about the same time so I’m on the crosstrainer before I’ve had a chance to ask whether I feel like it or not. Strict habits do for

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When I tell people that I work from home, they ask me how I have the discipline to do so. The answer is that I don’t. I just have a habit: I start work every weekday after breakfast without fail, so I can often get a few hours done before I’ve started thinking. If I were to wake up every morning and ask “what do I feel like doing today?” I’d never do any work.

I use a similar rule in my investments. Mostly, I make a direct debit into a tracker fund each month and an Isa contribution every November. If I had to do otherwise, I’d not save enough or make all sorts of silly stock picks. And I do the same for exercising: I go to the gym four times each week at about the same time so I’m on the crosstrainer before I’ve had a chance to ask whether I feel like it or not. John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)

Strict habits do for me what tying himself to the mast did for Ulysses when he feared the Sirens would lure him onto the rocks. They save me from my own mistakes. All of us are potentially irrational in countless ways, in the sense of acting against our own interests. Like Ulysses, we need constraints to prevent us acting on this irrationality.

Which raises a problem. In politics, these constraints aren’t strong enough. As Paul Evans says, the EU plebiscite helped weaken our traditional system of representative democracy which was “almost specifically designed to stop leaps into the unknown.”

63% of voters think MPs should do as their constituents wish, even if this goes against their own judgement: they don’t think MPs should act as constraints upon the hasty opinion of the mob. Not that MPs are well able to do so anyway: parliamentary candidates are selected by a handful of cranky fanatics often on the basis not of ability of ideological conformity. You all like to point and laugh at the likes of Bridgen, Francois or Burgon. But what you should be doing is ask: if they’re so stupid, how did they become MPs?  

And then, of course, there is the media. This does not reveal truth and expose lies but instead operates as a broadcaster of those lies.

None of this is to claim there was ever a Golden Age of wise legislators exercising Solomonic judgment. There wasn’t. But it does mean we have a problem. We know that we all have limited rationality and knowledge. If we are to tackle socio-economic problems we must try to overcome these limits by restraining ignorance and irrationality. And yet our political system does not do so. Worse still, many politicians and commentators treat politics as just another marketing exercise and don’t even see a problem. They don't even see the question asked by Daniel Hausman: why should we satisfy preferences that are irrational or mean-spirited?

But there is. And this should not be a partisan matter. Those Brexiters who are so keen on invoking the “will of the people” should ask: would I be so enthusiastic about this will if a leftist government were to appeal to it to justify widespread nationalization?

Of course, traditionally, there have been many Ulyssesian constraints, some of which still exist. One of course is the law, which is sometimes regarded as a substitute for politics. Technocrats have devolved some decisions to experts, such as in giving the Bank of England operational independence. Rightists have traditionally favoured limited government so that political irrationality can do only little damage – although this option has fallen out of favour recently, not necessarily for good reasons. And yet others – such as Jason Brennan – advocate limiting the franchise to knowledgeable electors.

But there are other methods. What we need is the promotion of what Habermas called communicative rationalitymethods of debate which rest upon truth and rationality and in which everybody has an equal say. Such methods mean that irrationality is constrained whilst cognitive diversity is encouraged. In his book Save Democracy, Abolish Voting Paul advocates mechanisms for doing this. We also require institutions (pdf) of deliberative democracy, whereby citizens can weigh evidence properly rather than act upon irrational whims.

One thing we’ll learn from the upcoming election campaign – and, I fear, perhaps the only thing – is that our existing institutions are a million miles away from such an ideal. And worse still, very few people care.

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