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Political epistemology and recent Australian experience

One of the growth areas in recent analytic philosophy is social epistemology. Epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge, but social epistemology often has a more applied focus. It asks about the conditions under which groups produce knowledge, and one of its central claims is that groups are often better at discovering truths than are individuals.

This comforting claim seems, at first sight, to be challenged by contemporary political events. The recent electoral success of Tea Party candidates in the United States, following on the heels of strong showings for hard right parties in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, as well as an increase in xenophobic rhetoric from centre right leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, seem to cast serious doubt on the ability of the electorate to rationally assess policies. The problem is sharpest in the US case, since the Tea Party seems to have mobilized the white working class to vote against their own economic interests. In these circumstances, it is tempting for the social democrat or even the moderate conservative to say, with Brecht, that the government should dissolve the people and elect another one.

At first sight, Australian developments might provide further evidence for the irrationality of the electorate. The 2007 election brought the Labor party, a centre-left party, to power under the leadership of Kevin Rudd. By traditional measures, this government was a stunning success. Fuelled by commodity exports to China and a rapid and decisive implementation of a Keynesian stimulus, Australia weathered the Global Financial Crisis unscathed. Almost alone among developed nations, Australia has a budget surplus, low income rates and low unemployment. The Australian electorate ought, conventional wisdom has it, to have reelected the government with an increased majority. But in the lead up to the 2010 election, Kevin Rudd’s popularity – which only a few months previously had been at a record high – was so low that the party felt they could not win with him in charge. The parliamentary party ousted him, and replaced him with Julia Gillard. The move seems to have helped, but the election was agonizingly close. The conservative coalition parties won more seats than the Labor Party, who retained government only with the support of the Greens and independents.

What went wrong for Labor? No doubt there were many factors but central to the fall in Rudd’s popularity and the subsequent mistrust of Gillard seems to have been their abandonment of their proclaimed principles. Kevin Rudd was elected promising to ratify the Kyoto protocol, which the global warming skeptical former government had refused to sign, and to introduce a carbon trading scheme. Global warming, Rudd said, was the great moral challenge of our generation. But when he failed to get his carbon trading scheme through the upper house of parliament, he simply abandoned the policy until after the next election.

His popularity plummeted immediately – ironically, to the benefit of those who were opposed to action against global warming. In part, this was due to disillusionment on the part of those who agreed with Rudd’s claim that action against global warming is urgent – the Greens certainly benefitted from Labor’s problems. But many people who are unconvinced of the need for urgent and dramatic action also abandoned Rudd. Though they might not have agreed with his proclaimed principles, they did not trust a leader who cast his aside so easily.

Among the gloom, I think this is good news about the wisdom of the electorate. Cynicism regarding politicians and their lack of principles, their willingness to ditch policies in pursuit of electoral success, is common and too often amply justified. The Australian example seems to show the folly of pursuing success in this way. The electorate may forgive or even reward a willingness to ditch long held policies as the mood of the public changes, but they distinguish between policies which are relatively peripheral to the political vision of a party or a leader and those which define them.

Social epistemology has a long way to go in discovering the conditions under which groups are better at producing knowledge than individuals. The Australian experience provides some evidence that the search for such conditions might be worth pursuing. Most hearteningly, it suggests that pursuing principles rather than short-term fads and fashions, is a strategy that may be rewarded with electoral success.

(this post was first published in French, in Liberation, 2 December 2010).

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Nice post, Neil. But if only it hadn’t been originally published in French! In that case, Britain’s Liberal Democrats might have read and understood it, and decided last week not to foolishly betray their signed pre-election pledges to students on tuition fees!

  2. Another complaint about the failure of democracy! Of course, part of the problem is that the voter get a great deal of bogus information, not only during the election period, and have relatively little time to check on it or even put good information into, and understand, the proper context. Finally, the remedy available to voters for what is wrong, or for the encouragement of what is right, is necessarily crude. All they can do is vote for a legislator and hope for the best.

    The big problem is not the voter. The big problem is he candidate who wins and overvalues the victory in policy terms. The throwing-out of a party need not mean a total rejection of what that party did. It may be simply a crude attempt to elect someone who might think more seriously about what is going on — perhaps in only slightly different terms. That is the problem in the US.

    Indeed, the “meaning” of an election is only of temporary value, given the changes that lie ahead. Nor does an election tell anyone anything about the proper ideology to pursue.

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