Shedding of inconvenient principles


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When this election is over, the odds are that both the Tories and the NDP will each have received more than 40 per cent of the vote, with the Liberals and the Greens picking up the crumbs. Roughly 40 per cent of the people won't vote.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/10/2011 (4139 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When this election is over, the odds are that both the Tories and the NDP will each have received more than 40 per cent of the vote, with the Liberals and the Greens picking up the crumbs. Roughly 40 per cent of the people won’t vote.

Given these facts, assuming they are facts, will anyone be able to say that the election has defined the common good, which is the classical view of what democratic elections are all about? In fact, elections have never defined the common good, or the values we hold in common, yet the victorious always claim they have a mandate of, by and for the people to implement the common good. Even if a majority of voters moved to one party, it still wouldn’t represent a vision of the common good, since it’s unlikely that such a majority would truly agree on the common good.

As political theorist Joseph Schumpeter argued in his book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, if there were a common good then we would all know what it is. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be the common good. The great fallacy in this view of democracy, he said, is “the proposition that the people hold a definite and rational opinion about every individual question and that they give effect to this opinion by choosing representatives who see to it that that opinion is carried out.”

Elections, in Schumpeter’s opinion, are just a way to regulate political competition, to install and evict governments.

“The psycho-technics of party management and party advertising, slogans and marching tunes, are not accessories,” he said. “They are the essence of politics.”

It sounds cynical, but this election would seem to validate his view that elections are a form of gang warfare, where people band together for the sole purpose of achieving power.

But wait. When Schumpeter published his views in 1950, political polling was still a relatively new art. Today, it is possible to determine the public’s priorities through constant surveys. And what the politicians know for sure is that health care and anti-crime measures lead the public’s agenda. (Or paved back lanes if you live in some key polling districts in south Winnipeg.) They are, if you like, the common good.

Or are they?

Both parties know that the current funding formula for health care is not sustainable, but they don’t care. They know, I submit, that more cops and tougher laws won’t end the violence on our streets, but, once again, they don’t care. After all, isn’t it their job to reflect the will of the people? That was, in essence, the position adopted by Mayor Sam Katz in the last election. The people wanted more cops, he said, and so it shall be done.

Polls are not an effective way of understanding public attitudes on complex problems, much less determining the popular will. If they were, then we wouldn’t need politicians, just good managers.

Schumpeter again: “We (attribute) to the will of the individual an independence and a rational quality that are altogether unrealistic. If we are to argue that the will of the citizens … is a political factor entitled to respect, it must first exist. That is to say, it must be something more than an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions. Everyone would have to know definitely what he wants to stand for. This definite will would have to be implemented by the ability to observe and interpret correctly the facts that are directly accessible to everyone and to sift critically the information about the facts that are not.

“Finally, from that definite will and from these ascertained facts a clear and prompt conclusion as to particular issues would have to be derived according to the rules of logical inference — with so high a degree of general efficiency moreover that one man’s opinion could be held, without glaring absurdity, to be roughly as good as every other man’s. And all this the modal citizen would have to perform for himself and independently of pressure groups and propaganda, for volitions and inferences that are imposed upon the electorate obviously do not qualify for ultimate data of the democratic process. The question whether these conditions are fulfilled to the extent required in order to make democracy work should not be answered by reckless assertion or equally reckless denial. It can be answered only by a laborious appraisal of a maze of conflicting evidence.”

Schumpeter is entitled to hold humanity in broad contempt, but we should not encourage our politicians to do the same.

Former premier Gary Doer once remarked that the people are not stupid. The comment was made in the context of accusing the opposition Tories of planning to sell Manitoba Hydro.

What Doer was really saying, however, was that the people are stupid. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be asking them to believe something for which there was no evidence. At that time, in fact, the Tories were promising the toughest legislation on the books to prevent the subject of selling Hydro from ever surfacing, even if it might be in the public interest to at least discuss the concept.

Like the NDP, the Tories have learned that principles are inconvenient.

The election campaign has witnessed the complete and total collapse of political leadership in Manitoba. It’s not the pundits or the people who are cynical, but the politicians themselves.

In the end, however, this election will not be determined by party platforms, but by that “indeterminate bundle of vague impulses (and) mistaken impressions.”

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