Beware Zealous Converts

People have a tremendous capacity to be motivated by stories. Politicians are aware of this and so often make them up in an attempt to communicate their ideas. This is a massive problem inhibiting rational dialogue in political debates.

The recent headline that German-born Labour member of parliament Gisela Stuart said the UK should leave the European Union, represents a problem with the way ideas are communicated and overly contextualised in complex political debates. For the record, Gisela Stuart didn't actually say anything that explicit, and in every interview I could find, actually made intelligent and reasoned analysis over the future of everyone's favourite European project, and articulated the sort of choices that need to be made. But this article isn't about Europe, it's about political debates and how they should happen.

Stuart, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, was previously a pro-European MP, who has since 'changed her mind'. Whilst this does make her Euro-wariness (I'm not going to call anything she said Eurosceptic) somewhat newsworthy (we live in a time where that phrase has suffered severe hyperinflation), it does not lend it any more or any less credence as a legitimate political argument.

People have a tremendous capacity to be motivated by stories. Politicians are aware of this and so often make them up in an attempt to communicate their ideas. This is a massive problem inhibiting rational dialogue in political debates. Within this issue resides the much more specific problem of the notion that someone's opinion matters more because they've changed their mind or because they'd normally be inclined or expected to have a different opinion than the one they've expressed.

There is no particular reason why say, someone's input into a debate should be weighted by their other opinions or their demographic position. There is no rational reason why someone's opinion on say immigration, should say effect their opinion on abortion. All things being equal there is no reason why someone who say, favours privatisation in the health care sector should then be given more credence when they endorse the nationalisation of the railways. Whilst it makes a potentially interesting story, it does not result in a stronger, more coherent argument.

Politics should be a rational choice between policy choices that allocate the limited but vast resources that societies possess in a manner that is efficient, whatever your preferred definition or measure of efficiency. It should not be a battle of the most interesting or most compelling stories about moments of appaullite conversion on some lonely, boring, lifelong campaign trail.

Attempts to derive the motivation for suggesting or pursuing policies far too often detract from the content of the debate on the policies themselves. Whilst motivations for policies are somewhat of a concern, in having a clear, factual debate about the merits of a policy, they are a secondary concern.

For example, last August, the world's richest investor Warren Buffett publically said that the rich should pay more taxes. He's probably correct, but the main story here is how much his statement managed to achieve. Buffett's words spurred the US Democratic Party into action and opened a new dialogue in the United States regarding raising the top rate of income tax. The right-wing vilified Buffett as a 'socialist' or as some sort of class traitor, lacking an adequate response or pre-packaged motive for his terrible pinko statements - because it certainly wasn't the jealousy they usually ascribe to those who call for tax hikes. This wasn't exactly a homeless Occupy Wall Street protestor.

What the American left adored about Buffett was his compassion, his righteous disgust at the way his maid paid a higher tax rate than him: his noble motivation. But that's not what they should have cared about at all, which was a gentle side note. The key breakthrough here was that a man who clearly understands a lot about the way the economy functions, having successfully made billions of dollars from examining its fundamentals and how it functions, made a coherent argument about economic policy. His knowledge and expertise should lend weight to his argument; his altruism, which stems from his wealth, in making it should be secondary. All billionaires are not well versed on the economy, as Antipodean mining magnate Gina Rinehart's moronic prescription that Australians should endeavour to work for $2 a day can attest.

Warren Buffett's endorsement of higher taxes is a relatively benign example, unless you're a libertarian. One which isn't is the recent attitude towards Colin Powell's repeated endorsement of Barack Obama in the upcoming general election. Neither Colin Powell's previous position in a Republican administration or his biological makeup take anything away from the argument he was making in endorsing Obama.

The easy, racist, dismissal leaked from within the GOP camp that Powell was only supporting Obama because he was black shows the truly dark side of attempts to contextualise and uncover the motivation in making arguments. They might be made distinct by their bigotry, but they represent the same cognitive process as suggesting that someone who has changed their mind has some added insight on policy, that suggesting that someone who is worth billions of dollars has extra rights to say who should pay taxes and who shouldn't.

They don't, and largely because our political process should not be a battle between people, but a clash of ideas; a rational choice between policies, not an emotive clash of personalities. The people presenting these ideas are inherently flawed. With notable exceptions most of what they say will be useless, unconstructive or mere repetition. Only in listening to the ideas presented and assessing them on their own merits, whilst drowning out the background noise of stories behind them, can we achieve an effective system of political debate and hopefully, effective policies.

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