Your Political Idealism Doesn't Make You Morally Superior, It Makes You Naïve... and Dangerous

02/11/2016 17:15

Of all the people in this world I do not understand, some of the most confusing to me are former Bernie Sanders supporters who hate Trump but insist that they will not vote for Hilary Clinton in the US presidential elections. I understand that they preferred the soft-socialism of Sanders to Clinton's more conservative stance. I understand that they see Clinton as emblematic of an establishment they loathe. But what I do not understand is how anyone who is severely alarmed by the prospect of a Trump presidency would not do everything in their power to stop his ascendancy. Sure, Clinton misused her private email server and gave paid speeches to Wall Street. But Trump is a third-generation millionaire who mimics Hitleresque rhetoric by calling for the expulsion of an entire religion and advocates sexual attacks on women. If I put a gun to the head of a Trump-hating Sanders supporter and forced them to pick between Clinton and Trump, surely Clinton would be an abnormally easy choice. So why is the choice of their next President, which could equally alter the course of their lives, not seen in similar terms?

Perhaps the absenteeism pledges are just bravado. But such all-or-nothing mentality, coupled with the dismissal of compromise as a betrayal of a personal ideal, has become endemic amongst many political supporters. It is not a problem of the Left or the Right, but spans the political spectrum. You can see it in Brexiteers who disregard those who worry about the huge complexities of withdrawing and renegotiating with the European Union as embittered Remainers, while blithely insisting that we can have prosperity and closed borders and access to the single market and legislative control, no problem. You can see it in Jeremy Corbyn supporters who equate those who believe that interventionist foreign policy can ever have deterrent or containment benefits with bellicose warmongers who have a sadistic urge to send British troops to die.

You cannot have your political cake and eat it. That lesson should have been learnt from California. In 1978 citizens were asked at the ballot box if they would like to put money back into their own pockets by slashing the property tax. Two-thirds said they would. Californians were not explicitly asked if they would prefer that tax money to local parks, school teachers, welfare and medical services. But because that was what the property tax paid for, that was essentially what they voted for. Intervention from the state government managed to keep local services open, but the upshot of the initiative was that it disproportionally benefited the rich, stripped autonomy from local councils, and contributed to terrible roads, shrinking police departments, growing homelessness, crumbling infrastructure, pension cuts, layoffs and higher unemployment. I cannot claim to know that this was not what voters wanted when they cast their ballots, but considering how people generally feel about potholes and giving windfalls to the wealthy, I strongly suspect it.

If California is a lesson in the financial cost of political idealism, Columbia could become a tragic example of the social cost. A historic peace deal has just been rejected in a popular referendum. The deal would have forced the FARC, a guerrilla force who has killed 220,000 Columbians, to lay down their arms for good. It foundered because of amnesty clauses which meant only top-level combatants would be charged for war crimes, and even then with a maximum sentence of eight years under house arrest. The desire for justice is understandable. But is it worth gambling more deaths? That is not my choice to make, but perhaps it shouldn't be the choice of all Columbians either. Poll data suggests that the deal was rejected by city-dwellers who live far away from danger, and was overwhelmingly supported by those rural citizens whose day-to-day life is affected by war. Is it really justifiable to risk other people's lives for a political ideal?

California and Columbia are geographically and politically far from Britain. But as parties at both ends of our political spectrum seduce Brits with promises of a pain-free panacea to complex social ills, our country would benefit from learning their lessons; everything has a cost. Our desire to live in a fairy-tale has led us to conjure up imaginary villains - big businesses, migrants, venal politicians - who, if only removed or shaken down, could fund our personal utopia. This is unhelpful and dangerous thinking. Raising business taxes deters investment. Barring migrants sucks money and talent out of the economy. Hounding politicians for compromising encourages the rise of mendacious populism.

Of course, everyone has different priorities and opinions, and political discussions grounded in realism will be no less argumentative as ones grounded in idealism. But an acknowledgment by both sides of the sacrifices they are willing to make will at least make the debate honest. It is dishonourable and lazy to try to win an argument by appealing to a utopian ideal that few would oppose on principle. Of course something like "free [lifelong] education for all" is desirable in and of itself. But if you want to argue for it, explain to me why it would be worth sacrificing great chunks of the national budget to fund a ruinously expensive policy that is deeply regressive. Bear in mind that increasing corporation tax rarely raises significant amounts of money and tends to harm the same ordinary consumers the education policy is supposed to better.

All policies have winners and losers. When we are upfront about those who will suffer under our ideas, we stand by policies which can be accurately weighed and judged by others. People will be forced to choose, which means people will be forced to prioritise. Nobody will be conned into voting against their own interests. The political spectrum will be wiped of idealistic but empty promises which benefit nobody. The world could be changed for the better; only slightly, only imperfectly, but for real.