Governance is hard

13248379_10154192476063200_552999881567266410_o Getting a good government is hard. This is becoming increasingly obvious in the world, perhaps for two interconnected reasons: people are less likely to make govts job easier by accepting that "The Governing Class" will get on with it as best they can; and the interconnected world is just harder to govern.

In a society in which the power at the top is fixed, or defined by someone else, getting the government of the layers that flow down from that to be tolerably correct is not too hard. Such as a colonial administration1. Or an English county. Or a theocracy? But when the entire structure needs to be self-supporting, the problem becomes much harder. Preventing too much drift, whilst also avoiding ossification is difficult. Cue my analysis of the USAnian constitution, in another post.

So when CIP comments that Brexit allows us Yanks to imagine that we might not be the stupidest democracy in the world I can but agree. Both Brexit and Trump are many things, but arguably manifestations of the public's separation from The Ruling Class and their increasing distrust of it. But this separation and distrust is also largely correct: TRC are not competent to their job2. Unsurprisingly: the chief qualification of a pol is the ability to get elected, which has little correlation with their ability to be competent in office; Darwinism applies in many areas, we should not fall victim to the error of believing in Intelligent Design.

How could you solve this problem? In a way, it ought to be self-solving: when the public becomes disenchanted and elects unsuitable people, those pols not elected, and those on the selection committees, and those voting in primaries, ought to learn from this and choose more suitable candidates. Alas, the feedback loops often don't work. Sometimes they are even unstable: if you're not elected, it is easy to decide this was because you weren't radical enough, and you move in the wrong direction. See-also rational ignorance. I don't see the Dems learning anything from 2016; and I don't see the UK or EU pols having learnt anything useful from Brexit.

I have come increasingly to believe that the direction to move in - this isn't a Final Solution, so I don't need to define it too carefully, it is more a direction to travel - is to have govt do less. They are, manifestly, not competent; so they should do less4. This though goes against the direction we've been moving for centuries; and directly opposes the Progressive View which invariably involves Govt Must Act. It is supported by only a small minority; even those parties that might nominally support it - Repubs in the USofA and Cons in the UK - don't actually support it.

Different views of competition

There are two sorts of competition: good competition, which acts as a spur to innovation and responsiveness, and results in a better world. And bad competition, in which two sides grind themselves down into the dust in a ding-dong battle to beat the other side. War is bad competition, unless you can win it quickly and cleanly. Civil war - a la Syria - is particularly bad. Market competition is generally good3. Political competition where it offers voters a choice of policies is good. But when it polarises into two parties fighting it out and turns into deadlock, it is bad. Is it a co-incidence that our two exemplars of bad governance - Trump and Brexit - come from systems with first-past-the-post electoral systems? [Note: this is not a suggestion that the best thing to do is to focus on the electoral system.]

Other things that are not the real problem

mt twote: The biggest public question in my opinion is not climate change. It is not global security. It... is bullshit immunity whose failure is at the root of all those other risks. I attempted to suggest that he meant governance, but he denied it, asserting that [BSI] has rapidly decayed of late. I don't believe that; I never trust the age-of-gold "it has rapidly decayed of late" stuff. That opinion is heavily influenced by Popper; for that see my Why don’t people pay attention to the future of their own world?

[2023/06: The illusion of moral decline]


1. Cue howls of outrage. Yeah, I know it wasn't all roses or even close. Don't get too hung up on the details or my lack of history. I've read Heart of Darkness.

2. In all likelihood, they never were. But the increasing complexity of the world makes the job harder, and the increasing transparency of the world makes the failure more obvious. Meanwhile, the selection process for pols becomes ever more ruthlessly focussed on electability, which selects out competence.

3. Progressives will leap in with the other sort of bad competition - fake competition - where evil companies or pols gang up behind the scenes and agree to pretend to compete but actually collude, thereby ripping off the public. But this isn't actually competition, so doesn't need to go into my taxonomy.

4. For an example of people pushing this idea, the market reduces or eliminates the need for collective or political choices to be made concerning composition, organization, extent, and distribution of valued product.


The left has no theory of the behavior of the government?
* Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious; from George Orwell's review of Power: A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell in The Adelphi, January 1939.
Factcheck: Is 3-5C of Arctic warming now ‘locked in’? - carbonbrief.
* Book review: Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra / That Hideous StrengthBook review: Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra / That Hideous Strength.


Tom said...

Well, small c conservatives and independents here in the US have long made the case that one way to minimize the destructive effects of bad governance at a national level is increased subsidiarity. Push decision making as far down the pipe as possible, as people are more likely to know and interact at a local level.

Although I am very much a leftist, this idea is not exactly BS.

crandles said...

>"the interconnected world is just harder to govern."

More people living in their own echo chamber bubble? Making almost any belief possible - like murdering innocent muslims is ok?

William M. Connolley said...

> echo chamber bubble

it is a thing, but is it a new thing? It is certainly possible to hear only views you want to hear, but perhaps it always was; when I were a lad, we only got the Torygraph. Though we watched the Beeb news too, but others may not. Nowadays it is much easier, if you want, to either get a wide or narrow spectrum of news. How that impacts overall politics is not clear.

crandles said...

'More people' does I think imply not completely new, but yes, much easier and more frequent now.

>"How that impacts overall politics is not clear."

Yes to some extent. However, more people believing their own bubble only means more people being irritated at politicians who they believe are not acting sensible given their world order view. -> More cynical views of politicians:


Would that be the same 50 years ago/pre internet? (Some cynicism of politicians previously sure, but as much as we have now? On that poll, I'm surprised bankers and real estate agents aren't seen as worse.)

William M. Connolley said...

> more people believing their own bubble

Ah, but that's what I'm querying. We certainly have more news asserting more people are in a bubble, but is it actually true? Given that it is now much easier to be not-in-a-bubble, if you don't want to be, I question whether average-bubblyness has increased.

> More cynical views of politicians

Indeed, public trust in govt seems to be historically low; e.g. http://www.people-press.org/2017/12/14/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017/. But why do you attribute that to bubbles? I would attribute it to greater transparency and information. It is every easier to see that (many) pols genuinely are not competent, or serving the general public interest.

crandles said...

>"Given that it is now much easier to be not-in-a-bubble."

Perhaps it is easier if you particularly want and are willing to make the effort to be 'not-in-a-bubble'. However, if you dislike being told you are wrong, it is now much easier to shrink into only discussing such matters in your favourite internet self selecting echo chamber.

I think it is logical to expect more of the extremes as a result of that being easier and also more people attempting to be not-in-a-bubble as that is also easier.

Now where was that onion? article on expecting more normal weather as well as more of the extremes. ;)

David B. Benson said...

Good government has always been hard to find. See the new book "10 Caesars".

J C Brookes said...

Surprisingly thoughtful.
Of course you identify that perhaps governance today is no worse then it used to be. And I would go there. As I often find with my side (the left), I'm forced to correct them and point out that we are richer, healthier, safer and less violent than we used to be. But I'm not sure I can say that we are better governed.
I'm with you that just because you are good at campaigning, you may not be good at governing. And I've suggested tongue in cheek that political parties have one leader during the campaign, and if they win, they choose the person they want to lead them in government.

crandles said...

>"It is every easier to see that (many) pols genuinely are not competent, or serving the general public interest."

I am not so sure. Events and hindsight show up 'bad decisions with the advantage of hindsight' but were they incompetent decisions in absence of hindsight? Do we just have more POV pushing that such decisions were atrocious because that is more clickbaitable than suggesting decision may have been reasonable?

That is a bit different from your "I would attribute it to greater transparency and information" though I am not really sure which - could be a bit of both and other positions as well.

>"trust in govt ... low. But why do you attribute that to bubbles?"

Fair point, bubbles are the meme de jour. I see an issue not just of more discussion in internet echo chamber forum but also less talk with random people outside such bubbles. In the past strangers would tell off teenagers for acting naughtily, nowadays you don't dare for fear of being stabbed/beaten up... Being told off reinforced society norms but if never told off such behaviour can get normalised and believed acceptable by the perpetrator. At different times this would be lumped in with several different themes.

Sam said...

the interconnected world is just harder to govern.

Not quite sure I agree with this. I think that the interconnected world maybe changes precisely how people make themselves electable. Pre 24 hour news channels, your MP was on TV much less frequently, and was less practiced at giving bullshitty sound byte answers to questions, so people would tend to actually give things like long, informed answers rather than reeling off a list of talking points, which required that they knew their stuff to an extent. There was also much less opportunity to spend time on things like twitter trying to get attenation for oneself.

One of the biggest problems in recent years is the use of the governing process itself as a campaign tool. T May did a superb job of this as home secretary, using deliberate fights with the courts to get herself praise in the press, and passing complete nonsense bills like the psychoactive subtances act, which was done as much to placate the daily mail as anything.

I totally disagree that the answer is less government. Democracy is still a staged competition, with rules, and the rules can be tweaked. Also, let's not forget that one of the main reasons we have the house of lords is precisely so as to avoid the problems of electioneering. And while there are plenty of duffers in the lords, if you ever listen to their committee hearings (Dieter Helm did one on energy a few years back) they are very well informed and are vastly closer to the deliberative ideal than you tend to get in the commons.

William M. Connolley said...

> I have come increasingly to believe that the direction to move in

I think I've said this elsewhere, and also defended my vagueness on exactly how far down this road I'd go, on the grounds that we're so far away from it. But, having just come across Bryan Caplan's "Socialism": The Provocative Equivocation, I should note it, because he criticises the socialists for authors almost never specify exactly what policy should be. Instead, they focus on radical movement in a desired direction, with minimal discussion of their ultimate objective.