Pity and the professional politician

I love this time of year. It’s a shame politicians have to ruin it. The weather is cool and crisp but mild enough not to be winter-miserable, the year is running towards its end but there’s enough time left to get stuff finished first. Nature is filling all fruit with ripeness to the core – except at the party conferences, full of rotten ideas and plastic-wrapped smiles.

We British loathe our politicians. The latest British Social Attitudes survey reveals that 32 per cent of us almost never trust government, up from 11 per cent in 1986. In conference season, it’s easy to see why. Other parties may not be able to top the craziness of Labour’s new enthusiasm for out-and-out socialism, which managed to wipe billions from the value of major companies overnight. They may not be suffering the murky revelations of a Damian McBride. However, there is hardly a golden glow around the Lib Dems’ bickering leadership, or the Conservatives’ patchwork commitment to economic and social liberalism.

But there’s no easy way to vote “none of the above”. All we have to replace our hated politicians with are other politicians. And as Ukip’s conference showed, the biggest difference with a party that claims to be new and different seems to be that its members will look like amateurs, while behaving as foolishly as the rest.

In the face of such monolithic dreadfulness, hatred begins to seem the wrong emotion to feel towards politicians. From this distance, they look less like a gang of chiselling crooks and cynics and more the victims of a deformation professionnelle.

This is, indeed, how public choice theory understands political behaviour. From this perspective, political power does not just corrupt, it degrades. As the American academic Sarah Skwire wrote recently, “politics is a machine that turns good people and good ideas into bad ones, and turns bad people and bad ideas into worse ones.” She also has a more terse formulation, Skwire’s First Law, which plenty of Brits can sympathise with. Skwire’s First Law states simply: “Politicians are asshats.” There is no Second Law.

This may seem frivolous, but it expresses a profound truth. Politicians behave as they do not because we have elected the wrong people, but because asshattery is demanded by the role itself.

The proper response to this season of political idiocy, then, is not hatred. Without any hope of an answer, hatred becomes simply an acid that corrodes the container in which it is carried. The right emotion when well-meaning men and women of all ideological stripes are reduced to lying and backstabbing and promoting ill-considered adventures with taxpayer money is surely pity.

We should feel pity most of all because we are culpable. Our exaggerated sense of what politics can accomplish has steadily handed over more power than anyone could use wisely or well. Rediscovering a sense of pity for our politicians makes the kindest course of action plain: it is time to lower our expectations and limit their power.

First published: City A.M., 27/9/13

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Filed under Economics, Freedom, Politics

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