Pre-Political Checklist with Chesterton: A Non-Partisan Primer for Intelligent Citizens

The inspiration for this article is the upcoming election cycle, and the impending and inevitable nonsense that will attend it. Two Chesterton quotes stand out for some helpful guidance. The first quote is this:

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

This is not restricted to political discussion, but generally good advice about evaluating the past.  The second quote is this:

“The men whom the people ought to choose to represent them are too busy to take the jobs. But the politician is waiting for it. He’s the pestilence of modern times. What we should try to do is make politics as local as possible. Keep the politicians near enough to kick them. The villagers who met under the village tree could also hang their politicians to the tree. It’s terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hung today.”

Building on these two quotes, I think three distinctions should be made before you start to think about what to vote for, and who to vote for.

The first distinction separates promises from reality. This should not need mentioning, but from talking with students in the university, watching the news, and observing social media, this clearly is worth mentioning. A politician gains power, and keeps power, by selling a narrative. However, the sale’s pitch and the product, are different things. A pitch for the climate may be bad for the climate. A pitch for safety may make things more dangerous. This is why we want our politicians close: if you have a salesman that never has to explain why they didn’t produce what they promised…why wouldn’t he overpromise and underdeliver (for those unacquainted with good business, it is supposed to be ‘under promise and over deliver’)?

The second distinction separates ‘moral’ issues from the ‘empirical’ issues. Giving a million dollars to an orphanage will have good consequences. But what if I got the money by stealing from the bank (other people’s money)? If we assume government policies are only an empirical matter that can be counted and calculated, this is skipping a rather important aspect of the discussion. Also, going back to the first distinction, we might call the act of stealing from the bank, to ‘reappropriate’ it to the orphans, the ‘Property Preservation Act.’ This doesn’t address the moral issue at all, and simply assumes that the act is just. After all, the politician and his supporters said it was.

The third distinction separates ‘character’ from ‘policy’. This relates to the character of the politician. In a perfect world, we would simply select perfect people, with perfect policies, but alas, we have politicians because we don’t have a perfect world, and we have tons of bad policies because we often don’t know which policies are the best (and we’re gullible). Further, a man with severe character flaws can enact good policy, and a saint can enact bad policies.

This brings us back to the first quote about fences. We are born in a world of institutions, but we have imperfect people, finite resources, and imperfect institutions. However, before you can fix things, you have to understand how things work. To fix a foundation, you need to understand a bit about foundations. To fix a wall, one needs to know a bit about walls. To fix this country, one needs to know how it does work before one fixes it. One needs to be able to make the distinctions listed above, and a bit about history.

If you’re not willing to do this….perhaps you shouldn’t vote. It isn’t a good idea to shoot in the dark.

Boiled Down Points, with Video

  1. Rational action requires knowledge, not gut reactions
  2. Political Action without accountability is a bad thing (though probably common)
  3. Character and Policy are separable things (this isn’t directly to the Chesterton quotes, but related and relevant)
  4. Moral issues and Empirical Issues are different things (also related)
  5. Promises and Actual Effects are different things

Excellent Sites about Chesterton:

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