Two weeks into my New Year’s resolution and it’s already time to admit that it’s not going well. At least I can take some comfort in the knowledge that the coalition hasn’t lived up to its promises either, missing 70 election pledges according to its mid-term audit. When I fail to hit my weekly target for gym visits, only my waistline suffers. When David Cameron and Nick Clegg fail to deliver, the country finds itself brought to the lip of a triple-dip recession, with familiar retail names apparently falling by the day.
It is a curious thing that, while neither individuals nor politicians are good at keeping their promises, only the failures of individuals are widely recognised. Oh, a few of us may call up Clegg on his absurd new radio show to complain a little, but when it comes to trusting politicians to make us behave better, the public mood seems to be that nothing could be more sensible. Proof of this came when an immediate roar of national laughter did not greet New Year calls for a UK ban on sugared cereals.
Politicians are rotten at getting things done. Their top-down methods offer limited room for manoeuvre, no capacity for adjustment to individual cases and little feedback from real world results. We can manage our own lives far better, despite those annual goals we never quite achieve, because we know when we fail in our goals. Politicians are held to account once every five years – those with safe seats, not even then.
One man who played an important role in teasing out our understanding of why political power fails to get things done was the Nobel-winning economist James Buchanan, who died this week. A pioneer in the field of public choice, Buchanan’s work revealed the self-interest and short-term politicking behind the high ideals of political strategy, best immortalised in the TV series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.
In Buchanan’s analysis, protestations of serving the public interest are cover for self-serving attempts to cater to a parasitic clique of lobbyists. Preposterous ideas like a Frosties ban get brought forward not because they are good for us but good for our masters’ careers.
In the face of our own repeated failures, there is no point in turning to politicians. Elected from the people, they are no better than the rest of us – and judging from some of their expense accounts, power without responsibility can make them rather worse.
It is said to be insanity to repeat the same actions and expect different outcomes. So let’s resolve next year to try a new approach: whatever your goal, visit a site built by private enterprise, like 21habit or stickK, and let the world of ingenuity we create freely trading with one another help you stay on track. But at the same time, we must stop imagining that asking politicians to tell us what is good for us can end in health and happiness for anyone but the politicians and their clients.