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October 29, 2014



To some extent, this should be mitigated by a competitive party system.

For example, Labour would favour a more egalitarian tax system, the Tories one that rewards innovation more. Or, the Lib Dems should err on the side of civil liberties, the others on security.

The trade-offs come in the jostling for power between parties (and to some extent the coalitions within them).


Another good example is social security. The obsession with 'fraud' (in fact only a tiny percentage of the overall bill) is more an ideological issue than a financial one. Politicians have used the idea that 'someone somewhere is getting away with it' (whether by official error or by fraud) to pursue a strategy which offers 'zero' error but is really about regarding all claimants as somehow 'dodgy'.

Luis Enrique

I will plug, again, Manski's book Public Policy in an uncertain world. here are some slides


@ redpesto - yes, that's a good example.
@ Steven - I agree up to a point. But I think our political culture would be healthier if politicians acknowledged the inevitability of error and told us which mistakes they'd prefer.
@ Luis - at £25 for the Kindle edition, it needs a lot of plugging.

Churm Rincewind

I can't see that politicians are in any way an exception in being disinclined to announce the possibilities of error.

To take only one of the examples cited, what "medical diagnostician" (say, a GP) regularly hands over prescriptions with the warning "there will be mistakes with this treatment - it's just that that it's better to make the mistakes associated with this treatment than the errors associated with other courses of action."

It's true but it's unstated, and I'm not sure whether it would be useful for doctors constantly to remind patients of the inadequacies of medical science.

The same holds true for politics.


I think there is a broader theme in our society at large (not just media and not just politicians) which you touch on here and that is:

why we (by which I mean by people in the UK) are so afraid of being wrong?

In order to be creative you have to try things out, and often/sometimes get it wrong.

The politicians you cite above are ultimately afraid of being seen to have been wrong. This perhaps leads them to be being seen as incompetent which in turn is humiliating. That cycle is damaging and something which Ken Robinson, for one, has argued is something we need to break - starting at school.


Politics is different, suppose the media debate was sufficiently fair minded to avoid screaming headlines and addressed why this or that policy failed, would matters improve? Would politicians ask us 'if we legalise drugs this may happen, or perhaps that'. Most would shrug and say 'well suck it and see'. But that would destroy the magic, the idea of authority, the idea 'we know what's best'. Worse, the competitive Punch and Judy show would lose its edge, political parties might blur one into another.

Then there is the secrecy, perhaps advertising and the meeja are indeed sexualising the young and do combine with industrial and social policies to deliver very ugly social phenomena in our cities. To change this might require putting a crimp in the media, thus losing tax and party funding and worse still require heavy spending. Better perhaps to keep Mum because if almost every problem's 'cure' has a serious downside to utter the truth does no-one any good.

Most people cannot stand too much truth, fiction is kinder.


Are these mistakes? Or trade-offs?

Deviation From The Mean

"Social workers must compare the mistake of breaking up families unncessarily against the mistake of exposing children to danger."

I think you will find that this can be a political issue! The Rotherham case is a classic example of how what is deemed an acceptable error and what isn't is a political battle.

I.e you paint a rose tinted picture of society here (even in criticising it!), in that you seem to fail to recognise that interests are at stake and that what is an acceptable error and what isn't depends on the balance of power, wealth, among other things.


@Chris I don't disagree, but again you grant the average MP too much latitude to talk sensibly.

All it takes is one anecdotal story of some mistake, and on certain issues, the Press is crying blood and demanding Something Be Done.

I'd love a political culture that is more reflective and deliberative. That is more humble and discriminating in what it can achieve.

There are a few MPs who talk like this, but it would require a push on far more fronts (from the media, voters themselves, political institutions etc) to achieve this change.

On a slightly different front, politicians abuse the existence of trade-offs. We've all heard of the triangulation strategy, where a politician puts up a Straw Man on his Left, and a Straw Man on his Right, and declares he alone has found the golden mean between the extremes.


'Benefit reform must weigh the mistakes of giving some claimants too much and others too little against the administrative errors that are inevitable when you try to change a massive and complex system. And so on.' I wish you wouldn't repeat the Orwellian misnomer of 'reform' to describe what has been happening.

Your erroneous assumption is that the people who have instigated this attack on benefit claimants would be at all interested in ensuring that what they are doing is balanced and fair. If they were at all concerned with that, they would be busting a gut to find ways of ensuring that the billions (yes, billions) that have not found their way to claimants as their entitlement, do so asap.

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