6.2.6.4 Irresponsible Policy-Making

Politicians who want to be popular often mislead the public, either by misrepresentation or by failure to explain the consequences of their decisions.  This is particularly tempting in economic policy:

  • They can mortgage the future by borrowing: they can offer unaffordable (but popular) public services. These debts, though, have to be repaid (3.3.8.1) and a future population bears the costs.
  • They can try to bribe the electorate with its own money, by offering ‘pork’, as in examples already quoted (3.3.7.1). It seems that people are unaware of their contribution to its cost.
  • The British government imposed austerity for several years after the Great Recession in 2008, telling the population that this was a necessary policy. It was actually trying to shrink the size of the Welfare State for ideological reasons – despite a warning by the Office of Budget Responsibility that this damaged the economy.  The resentment caused by this policy contributed towards Britain’s decision to leave the EU in a Brexit (6.6.5.8).
  • Some tell lies about their economic plans in order to win an election, as in an example published by the BBC in 2006: We lied to win, says Hungary PM – referring to an election. Although riots followed, he did not resign.

Sometimes the intrinsic complexity of economics enables politicians to play such tricks without being detected, and without people understanding which policies caused economic damage (3.3.9.2).

There is also scope for irresponsibility in other areas of policy:

  • Politicians can use legislation as a political tool, just to make themselves appear to be doing something, even if they could have used existing legislation (5.4.1.3).
  • As in examples which appear later in this chapter (6.7.4.2), they can try to exploit ethnic divisions to gain support – even though this can lead to horrific outcomes for everybody.
  • They can consciously incite people’s fear and indignation, to gain support for going to war. As described later, both George W Bush and Tony Blair adopted this technique to gain agreement to invade Iraq in 2003 (8.7.6).
  • A failure to take warnings seriously, or to react quickly enough, is irresponsible. The British government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, referred to by the New Statesman as An avoidable catastrophe, has been an example of this type of failure: “Mr Johnson treated Covid-19 first with libertarian insouciance …and then with indecision”.
  • Panic reactions to circumstances are yet another type of irresponsibility: a failure to consider the long-term consequences of short-term actions. David Cameron had been worried about losing votes to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), so he pledged to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership to win the support of those who wanted to leave – despite having been warned by the UK’s top civil servant that he might not win it and that he would “open up a Pandora’s box of problems he couldn’t solve”.  Most obviously, he failed to consider the impact of the vote on the country’s unity: he should have stipulated that leaving the EU would require a majority in each part of the UK: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Although climate change is clearly a serious problem (3.5.7.1), the short-term costs of adaptation and mitigation are sometimes challenged by politicians in search of popularity. Donald Trump promised to “bring back coal”, for example, during the 2016 presidential election campaign – to win the support of coal-miners who were “alienated and angry” at the loss of their jobs, after President Obama’s “war on coal” had been designed to protect the environment and reduce global warming.  Trump was unable to bring back coal though: “The president vowed to help the industry, but it continues shrinking despite his cuts to regulations”, according to a Guardian report in January 2021.

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This is a new sub-section, added since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6264a.htm