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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Provisional How-to for Voting (without being a lemming)

Don’t assume that voting issues are binary (neatly divisible by two; R vs D), because that is simply absurd. There are at least 100 crucial moral, scientific, and historical issues that need careful consideration, in order to make informed policy decisions and voting well. The very idea that all of your political positions can be comprehensively represented by two different parties is indescribably silly…

  1. Don’t assume that voting issues are binary (neatly divisible by two; R vs D), because that is simply absurd. There are at least 100 crucial moral, scientific, and historical issues that need careful consideration, in order to make informed policy decisions and voting well. The very idea that all of your political positions can be comprehensively represented by two different parties is indescribably silly. If you think that the political complexities are suitably covered by two categories, please don’t vote. It is likely that your reasoning is ill-informed.
  2. Don’t assume that every policy that promises something as just, is really just. Only a fool would simply assume a politician is telling the truth. Quite often, a policy that is marketed as just is unjust. Or, something for the poor, may not actually help the poor.
  3. Understand the principle of ‘cui bono’, and invested interests. Politicians thrive on emotional appeals. Cui Bono?: this simply translates to ‘who benefits?’. It is a good question, regardless of what the issue is. It isn’t decisive, but it is important to keep in mind. Politicians stay in power, and expand their power, by appealing to the ‘greater good.’ (this includes Third Reich, USSR; this is not a crude ad Hitlerum, but a simple appeal to the facts of history: politicians appeal to emotions, and get power through this)
  4. Suspend judgment (if you think you understand all of the issues of politics without much thought, you are either a bona fide genius, or you’re an utter fool)
  5. Evaluate issues independently: Each issue, and the corresponding political solutions, these need to be considered independently, as well as with other policies, historical context, means, etc. However, since we have a tendency to get wrapped up in emotional and irrational passions, it is wise to isolate things to their barest components before one can seriously evaluate what the issue really is, and what the appropriate response should be (sometimes inaction is preferable to inappropriate State action)
  6. Understand different aspects of policies:
    1. Know how moral issues differ from empirical issues (not strictly speaking, empirical; a policy might be immoral, even if does something that a group of people likes)
    2. Know how empirical issues (factual issues about the actual world) differ from moral issues (issues about right and wrong). For instance, empirical issues, strictly speaking, are not about moral principles. Moreover, sometimes a given policy isn’t obviously wrong (morally), but history may show that it doesn’t provide what it promises, or is grotesquely inefficient; like this$2 million dollar bathroom)
    3. Know how political theories underpin a given policy because some political theories are bad (this isn’t easily captured in a parenthesis, and requires a longer article; see Politics Without the Labels)
    4. Know how economic theories underpin a given policy (if a given policy is based on disproven/bad theory, that is a reason to not support it)
    5. ‘Good consequences’ don’t mean that it is the right thing to (otherwise, robbing a bank would be good, provided you distributed it properly; hint, it is still wrong)
    6. If you can’t separate these issues, this means that you should probably do some research, and after critical thought and discussion (assuming you have friends that are willing and capable of doing this), you can then revisit the underpinning issues later, with a clearer head, so to speak.

7. Exercise a little skepticism about policy promises, especially when someone is appealing to darker vices (revenge, envy, division, blame). Of course, sometimes people are to blame, but if the blame is assigned by getting carried away by tribalistic us-vs-them sentiments, you have to exercise MORE caution.

8. Look at strong defenses for both sides, and don’t formulate your positions by looking at caricatures from one opponent mischaracterizing the other. For instance, free market capitalism isn’t about greed, consumerism, and the destruction of the environment. Really. There are principled, well-meaning people that think that free markets make life better culturally, financially, politically, etc, without being pro-greed, pro-consumerism, and anti-environment. Likewise, though some capitalists may actually advocate for these negative things, it would be foolish to judge an entire group of people by the least coherent, and objectionable person that MISREPRESENT the position.

9. Don’t assume that there is deep-seated racism, bigotry, etc, etc, etc, simply because somebody disagreed with your beloved party. It is just silly…and annoying…and stupid.  If you put on colored glasses….guess what, everything you see will be….wait for it…colored. It will look different if you look at things from different angles and arguments. Consider what I call the Statist Fallacy: assuming that if you somebody does not think that the State is the appropriate mechanism to address a given ill in society, that this necessarily that such a person is against the given cause (e.g. State-run education vs. private charity). Understanding this fallacy makes it clear that it is not valid to conclude that since a person advocates for a private solution for a given problem, it is not necessarily because this person that does not value education itself. For instance, one can intelligently and coherently maintain that one means is more appropriate than another means towards a given end. Research and thought are needed to determine this, not gut reactions, ad hominem’s, and hysterics.

Much more can be said, obviously, but these are essential aspects to voting responsibly. Have any suggestions to add to this? Let me know.