Problem Solving And The Republic



During the Brexit referendum run in, Michael Gove stated, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” Turned out he was right.

I can see the appeal in that statement, it’s not nice holding opinions that are contradicted by experts, especially not when you’re trying to win over an electorate. Soundbites work, vague promises work, facts don’t. Facts get in the way of an opinion it took hours on Youtube to determine. Books they all know they’re not worth readin’.

You don’t get anything for nothing, remember. Sure, some traitorous, hard left, communist-type experts might argue, “well apart from air, or sunlight to name but two.”

But it’s not relevant that you do get quite a few things for free (Laws of Thermodynamics permitting, but that might involve experts) nor is it relevant that the vast majority of people aren’t asking to get everything for free. It’s all about the snappy soundbite that avoids any solution.

Lack of solution isn’t a bad thing, as long as we are brave enough to admit we don’t know right now. Solutions to problems are usually in short supply, but they tend to only come about when you ask the right question or find out find out what the problem is. Politics on the other hand is mostly about creating a problem that fits your pre-ordained, party-line solution/ideology.

Plato was a good man for getting to the root of the problem. He asked the right questions. His problem was that he wasn’t great at the solutions. Which is fine because he pretended they were Socrates’s solutions. Don’t shoot the messenger.

The right question was: how do we get a fair society that benefits the majority rather than the minority? From this he had more questions like, how do you separate wealth from power to avoid corruption? How do you have a fair, balanced society if women can’t participate? How do you determine what “fair” is?

Then he went and spoiled a lot of the good work with some of his solutions. Women are restricted from participating in society because of that pregnancy and motherhood stuff. Simple answer: remove baby from mother at birth so she can get back to work.

We’d better hope Leo didn’t cover Plato in his leaving cert.  Removing children was across the guardian class (Police, Civil Service, etc) in order that they were free from nepotism. You can’t give your kid a job, if you’ve no idea who your kid is.

Even though some stuff like this remains unworkable, like creating a guardian class who are not allowed possessions (and therefore cannot have wealth), Plato finds the problems. That’s where politics should start. Like: how do you separate wealth from power so that power can’t be corrupted? It’s not as if we haven’t seen continual, major implications of failing to do so in the short history of this nation.

You don’t get anything for nothing. Except illegal state aid on taxes. Or corporate welfare.

This isn’t to say the left has answered the problems either. The central problems identified by Plato remain unfixed. The left, the centre and the right maintain the status quo of power and wealth being together, except with disagreements on the fringes of tax and welfare for the few.

Solving those problems requires long-term solutions. Few politicians are brave (or competent) enough to look to solve an issue when the solution won’t be realised for several election cycles.

We could find a solution to power and wealth, but it’ll take a while so nobody will vote for me, instead here’s a short soundbite about some vague thing to be angry about. Google Tax! Immigrants! That’s the generous answer, giving politicians credit for knowing what the answer is and being calculated and self-serving. The less generous answer is they are just bad at their jobs.

In many cases we haven’t even tried. There are TDs who have business interests (vintners, landlords, etc), business that are directly affected by the decisions they do or don’t make. Businesses that, as it turns out, are rarely impacted negatively by their decisions. TDs get to set their own wages and benefits. They get to accumulate wealth along with having power.

Left, centre, right, they all voted for their own pay rises. They all voted for unvouched expenses. They all kept the civil services untouched with senior civil servants getting richer. Even without light-touch regulation, even without corruption, those in power have made it so that they accumulate wealth. Every unit of the state has those in power accumulating wealth.

This is not conducive to a fair society. Now, if only I knew what a fair society looked like.

According to Plato, those who would know what fair is, what right is (the correct right, not the other right), would be philosophers. Elders who have been groomed and educated in ethics and knowledge. Not the wishy-washy philosophers we know contemplating existence.

These philosophers would make the decisions, the guardians would implement, the rest could get on with our lives safe in the knowledge we are protected and it is fair (plus we have the wealth seems a good deal).

The problem is that being ruled by an unelected class of those who know better has always made Plato’s ideals appeal to tyrants and dictators. Instead of actually knowing better, these tyrants just think they know better.

But in reality you can take any text any writing and twist it to your agenda. All you need is to stick with the bits you like and ignore all the rest. I could probably find a few soundbites and faux-philosophical musings from a Wanderly Wagon script if I tried.

Plato’s Philosopher’s really would be as horrendous as they sound if they came into being, but again, the problem they solve is a sound one. Too much of politics and rule (whether democracy, autocracy, theocracy, monarchy, etc) is based on rulers who have a belief in answers rather than knowledge of the answers.

Party politics are driven by a belief, it doesn’t matter what you know, if you want to be a party member you have to align to core beliefs and values. This doesn’t have to be religious, it just has to be something you hold as true no matter what the evidence says.

According to Plato, rule should be based on demonstrable truth and knowledge, not what an individual believes. It’s hard to find anyone in modern day politics whose complete policies or manifestos are evidence-based. Most are based on the sense of what they or their party “feel” is right, rather than what is right.

Skip over the Plato idea of Philosophers being schooled in what is right by people who know what is right. Start with fundamentals like scientific evidence or principles of risk.

Humans are pretty bad at analysing and understanding risk. It’s why we do dumb things and hurt ourselves and others. But risk can be estimated and scaled. It’s not a prediction, just a quantification of probability (another thing people are bad at understanding).

Take the drug policy across most of the western world. Take David Nutt who researched the risk of drugs. Take the UK Blair government at the time who saw the report and then sacked David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because he published a scientific report that went against what they believed.

But it is all there, open to peer review and correction (which it has been where necessary). Alcohol is more harmful to society than Crack and Heroin. Horse-riding is more dangerous than taking ecstasy. With everything taken into account (frequency of use, reported injury and illness) current government policies do not meet the actual risk posed by drugs.

Most of the risks that exist are directly attributed to the current illegality of drugs rather than the drug itself. Does that change your views on drugs?

It has yet to change any politician’s views. Drugs have to be bad, because that’s what I believe. It’s incredulous that they could be anything but harmful, because that’s what I believe.

People will spend more time researching why David Nutt’s report is wrong than they will reading the actual report. More effort has been put into finding a way to find a tiny thread to confirm an existing belief than face an uncomfortable truth. When that fails, sack the messenger and just lie.

Take all other policies, how are approaches to welfare, to jobs, to homelessness, to health based on knowledge? We may all enjoy a good debate around what we believe is the cause and solution behind these, but do we actually know? Do the people we have elected know, or are they just basing more policy on belief?

Like the belief that the best way to run things like healthcare is to be more “business-like”. The fundamental reason for healthcare is an empathetic and humanitarian one, very few successful businesses exist based on empathy. It’s a service, but not a service like the “service industry”, it isn’t to fill a gap in needs or skills, it’s to keep people alive.

Businesses exist for profit (not that there’s anything wrong with that), can you run a humanitarian enterprise as a business? I don’t know, but then I doubt that those who advocate for that know either.

This is where any interest in politics and civil society can become depressing. We’re all great at spotting problems and mapping solutions to our existing beliefs. We all compromise on who we vote for and who we elect. One person or one party tends to tick more boxes in my beliefs than the other.

I’d be happier under a left government, but they’d still be crap and fail to identify the real problems in how we govern. They’d still ignore any evidence that went against their core values, no matter how true it is. They’d still vote to give themselves pay rises. They’d still fail to address obvious corruption. There’d be no change and people will still suffer.

Happy days.

Listrade can be found on Twitter: @listrade

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17 thoughts on “Problem Solving And The Republic

  1. mildred st. meadowlark

    Really interesting, as usual, Listrade, and thought-provoking too. Didn’t know about David Nutt and his report, but I’d be very interested in taking a look. Top notch :)

    1. Listrade

      Think you can get some of his lectures on it on YouTube. That’s a good place to start before jumping into the report.

      1. mildred st. meadowlark

        Thanks for that Listrade, will be checking that out over the weekend :)

  2. Joe Small

    Congrats on getting so many generalisations and misstatements into on long rambling posting.

    1. Tony

      List them. Use two headings. Heading one should be ‘generalisations’. Heading two should be ‘misstatements’. Provide totals at the end. Don’t let us down Joe!



      1. Listrade

        Wait, before you start, is there an award for this achievement? Because if so I’ll take it without question.

      2. curmudgeon

        Here’s a glaring one “I’d be happier under a left government, but they’d still be crap and fail to identify the real problems in how we govern”. A sweeping generalisation that is also wrong because it states as fact what is in actuality hypothetical.

        1. Listrade

          I’d be happy to correct the statement when given examples of a left wing government that brought about meaningful political reform that address issues of power accumulating wealth or that changed their policies and beliefs in light of evidence.

  3. petey

    why not yiz elect a left government, and see what they do instead of speculating on what they “would” do. a real left government, not Labour or SF, like.

    1. Andrew

      For the latest example in a long list of failed socialist governments, see Venezuela.
      I think we know what a left government would do. Borrow more money to increase spending on public sector wages and pour more money in to the black hole that is the HSE.
      Increase welfare etc.
      increasing taxes on those that work.
      How do you think that will work out in the end?
      When you borrow from Peter to pay Paul, you can always rely ion the support of Paul

      1. Listrade

        What about Ireland 2008? Did we not need a small loan to help us out?

        Failing states works across all political systems.

        1. petey

          true indeed. if Venezuela is “socialist”, then surely the Belgian Congo was “capitalist”. one could go on.

      2. curmudgeon

        Literally everything you mentioned is being done by the current government, was done by the last…and the one before that.

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