Have we under-estimated the importance of self-restraint in politics, and over-estimated that of formal explicit constitutional rules? I ask because of two things I’ve seen recently.
One is David Remnick’s complaint about Trump's appointments:
Having no experience in a given field seems to be, in the Trumpian universe, the greatest of virtues. The contempt for experience (as a marker of “élitism”) is parallel to the contempt for science, for fact, for restraint, for consideration, for decency, for a sense of the past.
The other is Jonathan Freedland’s account of the rise of lying in politics:
In the political realm have we somehow drifted into a world in which no one can be trusted, not on questions of judgment, nor even on questions of fact. But we cannot live in such a world. Evidence, facts and reason are the building blocks of civilisation. Without them we plunge into darkness.
These two pieces pose the question: why have things come to this? Here’s a theory: politicians’ self-restraint has diminished. They used to have self-imposed rules about not lying egregiously; or trying to think about policy; or trying not to appoint complete duffers; or not accepting positions for which one was unfit. Today, these restraints are weaker.
I had many complaints about Thatcher. But I wouldn’t list among them the sort of systematic bare-faced lying of the sort we saw from the Leave campaign, or (with the possible exception of the poll tax) the reckless disregard for the basic principles of good decision-making that seems to characterize “planning” for Brexit. Thatcher was wrong, but I don’t think she held facts and truth in contempt, as Trump and some Brexiters do*. She was at least trying.
The notion of “public service” wasn’t wholly pompous blather: it contained a kernel of truth that is smaller now than it once was.
In truth, of course, self-restraint and social preferences (pdf) are widespread and necessary. The tragedy of the commons was alleviated in part by stinting. Crime is low not just because of the fear of punishment but because of our self-restraint. And organizations (especially perhaps in the public sector) succeed in large part because of intrinsic motivations and reciprocity: workers who are paid more than is strictly necessary do more than is necessary. This is why “works to rule” can be disruptive.
It could be that the same was true in politics. Perhaps liberal democratic politics worked - insofar as it did - not just because of explicit constitutional rules and checks and balances but because of politicians' intrinsic motives.
What we’re seeing now is the demise of such public spirit.
Exactly why this has happened is a big question. I suspect Freedland is right to attribute it to the rise of tribalism, which I suspect is a manifestation of increased narcissism. If you’re totally confident that you’re right (which is of course the vice of overconfidence) you’ll not see the need to engage with reality or to ensure that your appointments are minimally competent.
But here’s the problem. In a healthy polity, the demise of politicians’ self-restraint wouldn’t much matter because conventional checks and balances would protect us. The media would expose mendacity and incompetence, and voters would reject dishonest or inadequate candidates and policies.
Such checks might still exist – if, say, Congress vetoes some of Trump’s appointments. But perhaps a lesson of this year is that they are weaker than we’d hoped. Which makes the decline of self-restraint even more worrying.
* Someone famously said: “Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and Reagan couldn't tell the difference.” There is, though, a big difference between indifference towards the truth and actual hostility to it.