What is best for the country?

I don’t know whether it’s my age, or the pedantic philosopher lurking inside me, but certain commonly used phrases are really starting to bug me. Some, like ‘going forward’, whilst annoying and vacuous, are harmless. Some, however, are being used to justify, at best, lazy thinking, at worst, anger and aggression. The worst of these phrases at the moment is ‘what’s best for the country’ – though for ‘country’ you could easily substitute ‘Dorset’ or ‘Bridport’ depending upon circumstances. I was campaigning in Lyme Regis yesterday for a second People’s Vote to help us out of this Brexit mess, and was struck by how passionately the phrase was used, usually as an attack on particular politicians who were seen as acting in their own interests rather than the country’s.

This phrase seems to imply that there exists some objective set of conditions that constitute the best or ideal state the country should be in, and that this set of conditions is obvious to anyone who sets their own interests to one side. There are two fundamental problems with this viewpoint. First, and most importantly, no such set of conditions exist. The closest that you could come to such a set of conditions is to ask “what, for me, should be the goals this country pursues?”. And the answer to this question will vary according to your own values and political orientation. A passionate believer in free-market economics, for example, will cite a reduction in the amount of regulation governing markets and the further spread of market conditions into the public sector. On the other hand, many people on the left (including myself) would cite a reduction in inequality, particularly income inequality, and the spread of the public sector into areas which are currently dominated by the free market. These views are completely at odds with each other, yet supporters of each will consider their view to be ‘best for the country’!

Second, even if we could, to some degree, agree on a future vision for the country, on what goals we want to pursue, we would then start debating how to achieve them. Once again, agreement on this would be thwarted by the fact that no clear objective path to the achievement of any goal can be said to exist. Life, all life, and particularly human social and economic life, is inherently uncertain. For a whole host of reasons related to complexity science, it is impossible to predict with certainty the future state of any system. The most we can hope to achieve is a realistic assessment of various probabilities, but humans are notoriously unskilled in this type of assessment. Even economists, who claim to have turned this into a science, are constantly being brought up short.

When people use the phrase ‘what’s best for the country’, not only do they imply the existence of some ideal future state, they also imply that the vision of this state is clear to anyone who can stop their own self interest obscuring what is obvious to ‘common sense’ – a common sense view that they obviously have and that politicians lack. I suspect that what they really mean is that politicians should simply agree with them and do what they think is best. In my limited experience of politics, my perception is that most politicians are acting and thinking according to their own best judgements of what they consider to be best for the country. Whilst there are obvious exceptions, most politicians are not acting out of self-interest. However, what people in all honesty consider to be in the best interests of the country is both subjective and highly contested.

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