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How do we build a political castle in the sky?

February 27, 2017

In our last post, we began to sketch a political vision for an ideal government founded squarely in the national interest, in serving the interests of citizens, and realised that the possibilities for brilliance were so vast – if we were governed well – that we could afford to make economic sacrifices to pursue the social and cultural ideals we cherish.

This castle in the sky we acknowledged appeared to be an idealist’s dream. Our real world is messy. Complex. Politicians are not unyielding guardians of the national interest. They are fickle, corruptible. They are lobbied by men serving high priests to fair Mammon. They have an interest in getting elected. They act in a populist manner. They make commitments they do not believe are right, yet are compelled to act on when they publicly commit to it. The list is long.

Nor are our other institutions beyond reproach. Business is not a guardian. Special interest groups are not a guardian.

This is all to say that the foundations to the castle in the sky are missing. This post explores how to put the foundations in place.

Understanding the problem

In the race of life, always back self-interest – at least you know its trying” – Jack Lang

There is a belief among sections of the general populace that politicians are these nefarious people. Dishonest, lying, useless, backstabbing etc. As if politicians were a particularly bad group of people consciously choosing a path of corruption. As if the problem were with these people (mostly men). As if, if you could put your candidate in, things would be fixed. As if these men were evil, and our woes lie on their shoulders, and would be lifted if we could receive an electoral deliverance and ‘drain the swamp’.

I am the first to say that the calibre of people matters.

But this concept of portraying evil and then destroying it is rotten. This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics is hopeless.

The truth is much more nefarious. Policy is made within a collection of self-interested and self-perpetuating systems with overlapping interests. These systems – banking institutions, military institutions and their vendor companies, governments, unions, special interest groups, manufacturers, retailers, real estate developers, entertainment companies, media conglomerates and so on – struggle to survive in a Darwinian world. They are all made up of managers trying to advance their careers or protect their professional fiefdoms or maybe just keep their employees from getting fired. They are made up of normal people looking out for themselves. Big and small businesses trying to grow. Managers of departments trying to justify their budgets. People with various interests asserting them.

This is not malice. This is not some cackling villain who we can smite. This is a symptom of the systems of incentives at work. You don’t have to believe that regulatory capture or public choice theory rule human beings – they do not, people are still human. You just have to believe that people are interested in what is best for themselves. Is that so ignoble?

Research in social psychology clearly reinforces this view. Behavioural economist and psychologist Dan Ariely’s work on dishonesty is a fascinating read. Ariely’s work thoroughly disproves the view that humans will decide whether to cheat based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. Instead decisions our are greatly influenced by the degree to which decisions affect our ability to still see ourselves in a positive light. As Ariely says:

“On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honourable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people?

This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating, and still view ourselves as marvellous human beings.’” [emphasis added]

You see, when this conflict arises, we experience cognitive dissonance between our image of ourselves and the action we want to take. If the dissonance is too large, it is extremely confronting to ‘cheat’. And this explains a lot. In our lives, we don’t face moral obstacles with a great big sign up ahead that says MORALLY EVIL ACT. Rather, we face seemingly innocent steps away from the garden path. And so we, and politicians, can rationalise away changes to our lives slowly. The man who first accepts a lunch out with a ‘business associate’ is easily enough able to rationalise it as discussing involving industrial projects. Then, when he is taken out socially, and his expenses paid for, he is ‘with a friend’. Then, when his friend asks for him to put in a good word to a person, or to vote for a policy, the minister can easily rationalise this. ‘That project will create jobs’ he says, not bothering to run an NPV driven cost-benefit analysis. ‘That subsidy for miners will keep them internationally competitive’ he thinks when asked to justify his continued support of subsidies for coal, gas and petroleum. ‘That negative gearing policy really is putting downwards pressure on housing prices by stimulating supply’ he says, ignoring the Grattan Institute’s report and the public cries to the contrary.

Of course, it does not help that the ‘favours’ asked are so very abstract. We find it extremely difficult to physically steal a wallet from a person on the street, yet much easier to add an hour to our timesheet “for that extra time I must have spent”. And yet, politicians are making what seem like very abstract decisions.

Nor are these favours ever quite so horrible. There is a very simple reason Barry O’Farrell was given a $3,000 bottle of Penfolds Grange, and not a million dollars. A million dollars would have been very clearly seen by O’Farrell as a bribe. It would have been very easy to refuse – O’Farrell’s cognitive dissonance would surely have triggered, for Ariely’s research also shows that most people are fundamentally honest and only cheat a little bit. But, even if he did accept the bribe, it would have been a very transactionary decision. “I will vote on X bill in Y manner, in exchange for a million dollars.” That’s a very economic perspective. It is also much less persuasive than being a small gift which generates social norms of reciprocity and compels the politician to repay the favour. It also doesn’t help that the gift feels much more like a voluntary choice to accept – generating a feeling of autonomy which compels us to honour a commitment – than the bribe.

But these are natural forces of nature. The tragedy is that we let them fester and grow to be a cancer on our body politic.

Why would we imagine that our politicians would stand firm when faced with over a 1000 lobbyists in Canberra? Why would we expect them to righteously stand with honour against lobbyists when the lobbyists are often not registered and seemingly invisible to the eye? Why would we imagine that a party would use the Speaker position impartially when they could use it to eject their opposition from the chamber and gain power? Why would we expect that moving the offices of department heads away from politicians and replacing them with ‘political staffers’ would do anything but improve politicians’ inclination to play politics?

Why would we expect to have good governance when the incentives are so twisted against good governance? Why would we expect people to not follow their own self-interest?

We would not. That is the sad truth. I started this section on the devil’s advocate assumption that politicians were inherently malicious people. I have shown this to be false. But what I haven’t said is that I actually think politicians start out nobler than most of us. Hear me out. I am friends with many wise, eloquent and noble friends who are student politicians across the political aisle. They are not malicious, power scheming fiends. Perhaps I just pick my friends well. But the truth is really that, far from being the deplorable dregs of society, our political class in waiting are actually often shining paragons of hope.

And yet, our paragons are the politicians who stand before us today. Our shining saviours… sullied in the mire of incentives. This is the work of failed institutions.

This is a story of human failing. But it is not one we can accept.

If I am to bow my head and declare allegiance to a leader, I want a leader whose qualities I can kneel before. Paragons with the honour and unwavering service of Donaldson’s Haruchai. Men of the verve and calibre of Teddy Roosevelt. Leaders with the unstinting effort of John Rockefeller. Leaders who care so greatly for their country that they have Brutus’ sleepless nights, yet project the public confidence of a hero.

I demand of our politicians the inhuman wonders of our greatest, backed by the ironclad standards of the best institutions we can build.

These are the changes for us to examine for our institutions – the planks that shall lay our path to the castle in the sky.

The pragmatist’s garden path

Reforming our political institutions is not so hard a problem to think of a solution to.

In parliament, the speaker should be an impartial government appointee – like a high court judge, like an RBA governor… anybody but a member of a political party.

All lobbyists should be required to promptly, publicly and accurately disclose the meetings and discussions they have with ministers, shadow ministers and public servants. This should also apply to significant lobby groups who lobby on their own behalf (e.g. Minerals Council of Australia).

All proposals by special interest groups should be accompanied by a public interest impact prepared by an independent and professional body. The statement must be released publicly. Private consulting firms should largely be excluded from the process due to obvious conflict of interest issues.

Tax benefits for ‘think tanks’ like the IPA should be denied.

No minister or senior government official should be allowed to work with any vested interest group in any capacity for at least 5 years after their retirement or resignation.

A federal ICAC should be established. Electoral funding reform should be reviewed.

Crucial areas of government policy should be within the purview of independent, professional bodies. A good example is the RBA – one of the shining lights in our modern governance. This should be replicated in other areas – improve Infrastructure Australia, radically alter health governance arrangements in Australia, set up an education funding authority with… actual power etc.

Institute four year political terms. Eliminate question time. Enhance the resources of the Parliamentary Library. Locate senior government officials with actual roles – like treasury officials – in offices next to minister; force political chiefs of staff etc. away from being proximal to ministers be mere office allocation!

There is our tip of the iceberg of political solutions. Some of the more mainstream solutions. Lets have some fun and be a little more radical.

We should put pictures of eyes / photos of watching figures on all walls and offices in Canberra. Proven to reduce dishonesty in psychological experiments by Ariely.

Politicians should swear short, televised daily oaths reaffirming their commitment to various things –> strengthen commitment etc.

Politicians should be required to recite noble speeches in public, especially Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Citizenship in a Republic’. (Okay… this one is slightly in jest!)

Oh, and politicians who betray the national interest should we publicly executed as traitors to their country. You read that right. We used to court martial deserters to the army. We killed deserters who were conscripts in WWI.

Politicians who waste $50 billion on a poorly negotiated submarine contract should be held accountable for the lives they lost because of the opportunity cost (and what we could do with billions). Politicians who accept favours from foreign powers (Sam Dastyari) should be expelled from the senate. Politicians who betray their citizens by embezzling funds should be executed just as deserters are for betraying their country.

Let me tell you a story of Romans and honour. There was a battle in which the Romans were defeated. A Roman from the battle carried this news to another general. He told him of the battle and the Roman defeat. The general called him a coward. A liar. He refused to believe the impending threat. So what did the solider do?

He turned his sword on himself to prove his message was true.

That is the dedication I expect from politicians to their country. Unwavering devotion. And I expect the social norms and laws to back this up. In Rome the policy of decimation – destroying 1 in 10 men from large groups of deserters – was used for a reason.

Remembering Ariely’s work, we know that it is easy to punish men for such visible faults like desertion. It is much harder to see the wrong in (clearly) addled policy. So perhaps politicians should be excused from such ‘barbaric’ practices…

But these are not low levels insubordinates from the terrors of the trenches. These are our paragons. Our best and brightest. Our knights in shining armour whose armour blazes a path of hope amidst the world. They are the leaders on which we place the hopes of our lives and country. They are the people we rightly demand greatness of.

That is why we must do our utmost to get the incentives right for these people. Since we cannot stop the incentive of bribery – though we can mitigate it through the measures above – we must look to a deterrent. The stronger the deterrent, the more we can help our country.

The strongest deterrent is death. The strongest weapon for our country is death – for high treason.

I confess this would be a bold step to take. I am not sure it would be perfect. I am not sure how to draft every nook and cranny of the legislation. Maybe it is not death that we must choose. Perhaps it is exile, or dishonour. I do not know. But I do know that the value of a honour culture is strong, yet missing in today’s world. That the inculcation of strong virtue by example would help the populace.

I would close by asking you a few simple questions:

Do we know that the first form of self-government is governing ourselves – not through indifference or rigidity, but through respecting our fellows and wanting to play an honourable part in the world? Do we derive our notions of respect and our definitions of honour from our ideas of right and wrong? Do we teach our principles and honour those who uphold them?

Do we have the strength and heart to make them real?

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