Your opinions annoy everyone else

G20_crowdThe other day, I promised to start answering the question of how I think it can be possible to be a principled politician while avoiding the career-ending pitfalls of principle. This post won’t do it, but it will help build to the answer. I’ll need to make this point on the way.

Imagine we were building a democracy from scratch, after some kind of apocalypse? All property rights would be void, all power-relations would be gone and we’d be working on a blank sheet of paper.

There are all sorts of logistical and logical problems we’d have to solve, but one of the most interesting ones would be the points at which human nature – however you want to define it – reject democracy and work against it.

For example, a few years ago, an anthropological study claimed to show that – under certain circumstances (epidemics, infections, the presence of parasites, food poisoning, etc) people are more ethnocentric, hierarchical and xenophobic.

These are, I think you’ll agree, not democratic values.

In a fairly unmethodical way, I’ve been pulling together a list of other attitudes and perspectives that make it harder to expect people to behave in the kind of rational, collaborative way that an idealised democrat would like us to.

The one I keep returning to is the popular ‘everyone agrees with me’ fallacy. I could cover this quickly with a link to the ‘false consensus effect’ cognitive bias, but there’s a very political illustration that I’d prefer to use.

In 2005, the late Chris Lightfoot took a large lump of Mori’s polling data on political issues and he then plotted everyone who replied on one of those ‘political compass’ axis.

Since Chris’s passing, the website has disappeared and I can’t link to it, but (please, take my word for it) rather than showing red-dot Labour voters clustering on the left hand side with blue-dot Tories on the right and orangy Lib-Dems in the middle, it showed that (a) no-one seemed to agree with anyone else about very much, and (b) there were plenty of coloured dots in absolutely the wrong part of the political compass.

People don’t agree with you anything like as much as you think. Even your own body doesn’t agree with you. (h/t Ivan).

Other things on that list of obstacles: There’s The Tragedy of the Commons. There’s Mancur Olson’s ‘Logic of Collective Action’ which shows that there is a free rider problem that makes it a lot harder than you would think to get a group of people with a common purpose to act together to solve that problem in a coherent way.

At work, a few months ago, we went on a course about organising groups of people (I work for a trade union) and we looked at Tuckman’s stages of group development.

Long story short? It’s a lot harder than you think.

Then there’s ‘the democratic trilemma’ (h/t Chris Dillow) argument that even a fairly small group of people will struggle to be able to collectively rationalise in a fair way, and then translate any decision that they do make into action.

People don’t have as many common causes as you think. It’s harder to reach a collective decision, and they don’t work collaboratively towards a common goal even when they have one.

It they do, it takes patience, and probably lots of money to buy professional help.

It may be that they’re part of an expensively assembled false consensus. It is probably a group that would struggle to tell you what they are in favour of, even if it’s fairly easy to get a group of people to oppose something.

I’m sure that there’s a much better, more rigorous academic essay that can make this point with graphs and formulae, but I hope the point is clear.

Once anyone who is looking at democracy understands just how hard it is to reach a consensus and to act on it, thinking it through has to change the way that you understand how politics works.

Just think this through from a politician’s point of view? That principled decision that you are about to announce?

The more experienced the politician, the more aware they will be aware of how many people are going to disagree with any clear statement of intent that they may make.

There is one exception. If they’re supporting the aims of a small purposeful group of people with a lot of resources, it could be a bit easier (that’s another one of Mancur Olson’s conclusions). When we see a purposeful group with an elegant set of arguments, we may be advised to check to see if there is an army of well-concealed lobbyists behind it?

Principled positions and principled people may not be as important to democracy as we think.

There are other ways of getting democracy to work for justice, but having admirable people saying the right thing, or a group working towards something that looks like a noble cause? They may not be it.