The devaluation of politics


Politicians complain that politics is being devalued, with the populace disenchanted with the political process. One could retort that this cultural shift is to be expected in a free society where the affluent can largely look after themselves, but perhaps the politicians need to look at their own culture a little more closely.

Where government is limited, politicians can restrict themselves to matters of principle, to the standards and constraints that govern the actions of the people. When government becomes a vast social work department, all the paradoxes and imponderables of constructing the public "good" come into play. In particular, politicians become slaves to a mismatch between idealised objectives and their own interests.

The debacle over the ten percent income tax rate highlights the contrast. Technically, a single rate of income tax is a good idea, it smoothes out marginal tax rates and helps remove the high barriers to escaping welfare. But the headline interest of politicians is not to be seen to be punishing the less well off. Retaining a 10 percent rate "for the poor" is a simpler message than removing a 70 percent marginal rate as the poor try to get less poor. Equally, the obvious route of cutting income tax to 10 percent for everyone is seen to be "helping the rich".

Politicians, in concert with the media, regress in these complex circumstances to a slanging match about whose incompetence was it that led to the mix-up in the first place. The Whitehall Village bellows to itself in its glass box thinking it is addressing the policy issue; while the public see weird people indulging in weird antics to protect their interests. Is it any wonder that so many of us respond by saying "frankly, my dears, we don't care a damn".