2011/06/11

A plea for competent deliberations on political matters. A rip into ideology.

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Years ago I arranged a meeting with a very established and respected German commenter on security policy (regrettably, he's since deceased). I had had previous contacts with him and expected a nice afternoon, exchanging lots of stories and acid-tongued bashing of failures in the realm of security policy and the Bundeswehr. My anticipations were correct.

My preparation for this meeting involved carrying a 1x 1 metre b/w print of the German army's organisational structure (down to battalion level) with me. I did put it on the table, expecting a nice discussion about the incredible failure that this structure was. Instead, he replied that he's not really competent in such things. He looked at it and didn't spot the obvious issues, such as no artillery (and at times even no mortars) being organic to certain combat brigades.

He was one of the top experts nation-wide in regard to competent critique of our ministry of defence's failures, but he wasn't qualified to spot serious flaws in a simple army organigram. His competence was in other areas.
This made me think about the civilian control, the competence of the German public on military affairs. How many people in important positions may lack the ability to spot at least major failures reliably?
What about our new minister of defence, who has no prior curriculum vitae entry about defence policy?

We've got about 80 million citizens in Germany, certainly several million of them have the education, intellect, health and age for being experts on defence policy, but how many of them are actually experts - and relevant ones? Any?

Can failures - not only in defence policy, but also in economic policy and other policies - be explained by sheer and systematic incompetence?

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Sciences usually offer some rational models and methods for decision-making. Much area-specific knowledge has been accumulated in just about every area of interest.
To exploit these models, methods and experiences is feasible. It takes much time, effort and skill, but it's feasible.

The basic idea of representative democracy is that we as normal citizens cannot spend much time and effort and many of us lack the skill - thus we task representatives with doing that for us. These representatives are full-time employed, chosen, professional and supported by professional full-time staffs and advisers. They are supposed to accept the challenge, deliberate about it and to come up with a good answer. Decisions should be done on a case-to-case basis. No decision for a specific problem is applicable to another problem.

Instead, we got professional careerists with a classic principal - agent problem.
It's so utterly uncommon that professional politicians meet the requirements for skill, competence and diligence that even the media - the controlling instance - has become accustomed to not even expect skilful and systematic deliberations.

Instead, people have become accustomed to ideologies and fashions: dumbed-down sets of answers to problems. There's an issue with regulation in some industry? Follow your ideology. Military budget? Follow your ideology. Social issues? Ideology.

Ideology offers a simple one-size-fits-all answer to problems. You can become lazy and avoid deliberations as a politician, you can even make a political career while being incompetent and never serving your people. As a citizen, ideology gives you the feeling of being competent on just about everything. No need for high intellect, specific skills and knowledge. You have an answer for everything.

It's so enticing, so comfortable - and so wrong.
To follow an ideology is almost like flipping a coin; 50% probability of doing right. At most.

Is it surprising that our mature and complex societies run into problems that we cannot solve even after years? We're essentially flipping coins in our decision-making.


That's the optimistic interpretation, remember the "At most".
Ideology would be as good as flipping a coin if every problem had only two possible answers, but there's an endless set of answers. Let's look at a tax:
(1) Tax rate up?
(2) Tax rate down?
(...)
(m) Changes in tax base definition?
(n) Changes in exemptions?

A case-by-case deliberation with skill, intellect, experience, knowledge, model and method offers the best probability of picking the best set of tax rate, tax base and exemptions. Ideologies are usually binary; two orthogonally opposed maxims that are unable to aim well at a specific optimum. Ideologies don't have a 50% probability of being correct; their probability of being correct approaches zero.

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The aforementioned author also warned me to never fall prey to the illusion of influence. Even after decades of work and publishing, you cannot make even a dent on the course of events as a commentator. You can only feel satisfied in the quality of your work.

Sadly, he was most likely correct. 
Nevertheless, I feel satisfied in at least making the attempt to add some more info and some more original thoughts to the public in regard to security policy.



S O
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1 comment:

  1. In a way, here you fall into arguing for a technocracy or similar. While I'm in favour of some elements of that, I doubt it's workable long-term.

    The strength of ideologies (at least in the modern-day usage of the term) is that they are pattern of thoughts. Liberalism quite literally changed how the world was organised during the 18th and 19th centuries, arguably for the better. By formalising and making these patterns visible, it makes it a lot easier to discuss and analyse society.

    To me, ideologies are needed, partly as stories (this is how the society works), partly as patterns that you use to evaluate options and alternatives.

    But I agree entirely on that ideologies are not a replacement for thought and analysis - they are merely the start of it.

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