Why is it that the general public is expected and trusted to be fair and impartial when called to jury service, interviewing for jobs or working in almost any occupation, but this is not the case when it comes to making the most important decision: voting for who will run the country? In almost any other job we trust people to be objective and we punish them if they aren’t, judges, doctors, managers, if they don’t follow where the evidence points but where their personal opinions guide them or if they break protocol they risk their reputation and their job. Politicians can have a reputation in ruins but still keep their job.
Ideology and the persuasive power of image have been known to be the biggest drawbacks to democracy for time immemorial, yet very little has ever been done to reduce their effects and arguably in the past few decades they have been exacerbated with a move towards the political extremes in both the US and UK. This is likely to get even worse with the rise of social media as image and celebrity become more pronounced and they tend to be echo chambers reinforce people’s ideologies and runaway processes take place as things go viral. Irrelevant characteristics relating to candidates image such as facial structure and vocal range and style are known to influence voters.
Would Donald Trump (née Drumpf) have been a contender for the presidency without social media? Would he persuade anyone if political candidates had to wear burkas and disguise their voice when appearing in public? One day soon we will get a politician who is the Boaty McBoatface of parliament, elected because he amuses people to do so (one could argue Boris Johnson proves this has already happened).
The ideology in politics results in two closely related problems; it means that decisions are based on how politicians and the electorate feels about something and because people tend to care about and feel comfortable with certain things along a limited number of continuums which make up the liberal-conservative spectrum (see my summaries of Moral Foundation theory and the Big Five model of personality), which means that when it comes to making decisions for the good of the electorate they options tend to be limited, pushed to extremes along the spectrum and certain combinations are never seen together. An example is keeping businesses and trade unions in check, governments tend to favour one or the other depending whether they are left-wing or right-wing, the findings of psychological research show politicians will always be expected to lean towards one or the other as long as ideology rules supreme.
There’s only one system we have for overcoming ideology and looking outside of the restraints it puts us under, the restraints of individual bias and of collective limitation to thinking along the liberal-conservative spectrum. That system is science. Science tells us what actually works in helping increase people’s physical and mental well-being. (If helping people increase their well-being is not goal of government what is?) Science forms a consensus which tells us what ideas are not valid but can change based on new evidence. Science should be used not only to nudge people into making better personal decisions for the sake of their own well-being but to make better political decisions for the sake of the well-being of the individual, the country and the world. Science shows us the diversity of people, it shows us that the liberal-conservative spectrum is a continuum, and that one ideology can never accommodate all of their variety. There is a good example here of how the current government can take research that is flawed and not consensus and present it as if valid, The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson gives a great overview of the misuse and abuse of science by politicians (this post is partly inspired by it and a response to Mark’s request for those with scientific understanding to get more involved in politics).
Am I saying that people are stupid and shouldn’t be trusted to elect governments? Am I being elitist? No, all of us have biases, including myself, we are all fallible, and because of this the system can and is exploited and a fair system would protect the electorate by helping it and us to be impartial. (When it comes to elitism research shows that candidates with more straightforward speech, understandable by those with less education, win more votes, I think all candidates should having coaching on this and aim to be understood by as many voters as possible?)
This brings me to my title; in the current system there is an extent to which the prime minister already is not elected. Unlike the US system the heads of political parties are not voted for in nationwide polls, true, anyone can join any party, but each charges a subscription fee, so to influence the leadership of every party would be expensive and time consuming. Once a party is elected to power none of the electorate has any say in which ministers will be given which secretarial posts, the prime minister has final say in who to appoint as, say, health secretary and his/her choice may be the best from the limited pool they have to choose from, but there is no guarantee they will be.
This is how we have ended up with a UK government which seems almost a deliberate trolling in terms of who it has appointed at various times to the specialist positions: a health secretary who believes in homeopathy, a minister for equalities who voted against gay marriage rights, a science minister who studied history and until recently an environment minister who denies climate change.
Why can’t members of parliament be like any other job? Any other job you have certain core concerns, patient health, the bottom line, manufacturing quality, exam results, if you aren’t interested in those concerns or unable to meet them you won’t get hired or you will get fired. Democracy takes away those responsibilities, it makes concerns diffuse (the Prime Minister has to care about many issues, ministers can get swapped from health to education to energy), feedback lags by five years and the public employers don’t have a complete insight to their performance. In politics compromise, or changing a course of action based on new evidence or better thinking, is a bad thing and usually branded a U-turn, our shaming of compromise is not objective it is based on subjective feelings of honesty.
I think the solution is to make the specialist ministerial posts and prime-ministership like any other job. Since they aren’t elected anyway they should be chosen by people in a relevant field (environmental science, medicine, teaching, business, management etc) and given to those who apply based on having the best credentials for the job. This would mean they were accountable; they could be fired or disciplined more easily for misconduct (like filibusting) and more quickly than having a by-election or waiting for the next general election. In the current system you are more likely to be fired for presenting information that is politically inconvenient or disagrees with ideology that information that is incorrect. There would be fewer problems due to conflict of interest and less influence from funding bodies. The hiring process would have to be transparent; interviews could be a matter of public record, but there would be checks on the selection process and the normal systems in place for employers to hire fairly.
Where would democracy fit in the picture? Well, local MPs would still be elected as they are now, but they wouldn’t have unique positions, each would only be there as a representative of their constituency and inform the appropriate specialist minister of the constituents’ concerns. The specialist minister would be required to take these concerns into account or provide transparent, evidence-based reasoning to explain why not. This may seem like what happens in the current system, but there would be more certainty the specialist minister would be impartial and properly informed and fewer decisions made for political reasons to appease the party or the electorate as they do not control their job.
This system would give us the same amount of democracy with more chance of the country being run on principles that help the people. The question of how we implement this change given the current system is not one I can answer yet, but I will discuss this in later posts. What do you think? Is the idea repugnant? Is my reasoning flawed? My putative solution is less important than the reasoning behind it, the problems with the current system I have outlined above. I would really appreciate any input that can help improve these ideas. Let me know in the comments below.
– Matthew Dickinson,
The Spiritual Materialist