(First published for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science)
Throughout my time writing on ethics, I have always made one value very clear: there are issues in politics which it is possible to be right and wrong about. It is easy, in an environment such as this, to note examples such as the presently occupied homophobic positions of many US politicians. Most rationally inclined people will see the moral problems with disregarding the rights of the LGBT community, and thus note that it is wrong to deny people a right to marry (whatever we may think of the institution of marriage).
My opinion that it is possible to be wrong in politics goes deeper than this though, and is best highlighted by the UK system. We currently have a right of centre party forming the majority of our government, who have spent the last 4 years cutting the funding for a variety of public services based on the reasoning that they need to do so in order to cut the ‘deficit’. This idea goes almost unchallenged – politicians argue about it, but very few people are getting upset about the fact that so many services are being cut so drastically. Yet even healthcare experts are now noting that this is undermining even the most cherished of our institutions.
The reason for this lack of opposition is that the Conservative’s reasoning sounds fairly solid. ‘Deficit’ is now a globally understood term, and politicians in many countries are happily using it as a buzz word for putting in place a series of spending cuts which wouldn’t otherwise go unchallenged. This, in turn, is down to the work that politicians have done in persuading people that the deficit of public spending and borrowing is so severe that we need to start cutting spending immediately. They have been especially effective in using terminology which compares it with credit card debt: the sooner we lessen our borrowing, the sooner we can pay off our debt and be back in positive terms.
The fault with this reasoning is that it’s wholly ineffectual at doing anything but pushing a right-wing agenda: there are two rational sides to this argument, one of which is not being heard. Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman is in my opinion the best proponent of the opposite view to the Conservatives’. It is unarguable that the government is in debt, he simply takes issue with the idea that spending cuts is the only, or even the best, way out of them. The conservatives are taking it as common sense that we must cut public spending to reduce the deficit, but to steal a famous rationalist phrase, if economics was common sense then we wouldn’t need economists.
Krugman argues that as the economies collapsed, and are still collapsed throughout the world, we have returned to requiring depression era economics. This doesn’t require spending cuts, but rather history shows us that the way out was through counter-intuitive increased spending. The reason for this is simple: government debt is not like a credit card debt, and companies cannot be stimulated into significantly investing into the economy by reducing debt. This is what he refers to as the ‘confidence fairy’: a logical fallacy that politicians often use to argue their case for spending cuts. Instead, by increasing/continuing high levels of spending, you might initially increase a deficit but you also stimulate more economic growth by employing more people and thus allowing more spending in the wider economy. Economic growth means that the deficit is naturally reduced, as it reduces in value due to the difference inflation – perhaps also spending can be reduced gradually to normal levels, if it was initially increased, once the economy is stable enough to handle it. This is why economics isn’t common sense: we are all used to dealing with personal finances, and personal finances have absolutely no relevance to public finances, in which one must consider all kinds of other effects.
Krugman’s case is very persuasive, as it appears to peck away at that familiar ‘common sense’ and by doing so produces a gaping hole for a logical explanation which his historical research provides. But at the same time, economics isn’t an exact science, so we are free to side with where we see most evidence being evident. Such an example does at least tell us that politics, with its almost wholesale reliance on the credit card analogy, is wrong by refusing to debate any further than at ‘common sense’ level.
In the UK such a discovery of rational opposition leads us to even further analysis. The conservatives are a right of centre party, and are classically built on the foundations of a will to reduce public services. Indeed, it was the Conservatives that already privatised many of the institutions which the UK no longer has public control. If we want to see the motivation for ignoring the rational debate on debt and deficit, look no further than a rigid desire to find any reasons that support public spending cuts – a belief for which the party have total faith and support in.
We might bemoan the faith-based thinking that stops people from challenging their personal prejudices or religious beliefs, but this faith-based culture spreads far wider than this. In the political systems of every country in the western world is an inbuilt battle of ‘left vs. right’ or ‘central vs. extremist’ but yet never explicitly ‘evidence based vs. opinion based’. That is by far the biggest political problem in the western world. We now have evidence to judge, or at least to enable us to rationally debate, most political issues which we face, yet decisions are largely still made based on a case of dogmatic perspective – no-one is accountable to facts or reason unless someone else’s opinion happens upon it.
Politics is a subject on which it is almost always possible to be right or wrong – we now have the ability to find out who is most likely to be right, at least. Yet it continues to exist in a cocoon of tradition and opinion, which halts the onset of any improved, evidence-based decision making.