When I was growing up I heard my father say that the best doctors were good diagnostician. I also remember my mother telling me that I had to take my medicine, even if it didn’t taste good, because it would make me better in the long run. We all like doctors with good bed side manners, but the most important thing for the majority of us is their ability to cure what ails us. I can remember more than once someone recommending a doctor and saying, “Their bedside manner is not too good but they can cure you of…(whatever my problem was at the time)”. Doctors get paid and have long careers because they can solve problems. And the first step is making a correct diagnosis. The politicians main objective is to get re-elected, not actually solve problems. Politicians have long careers because they speak well and make promises that appeal to people whether they can fulfill those promises or not. If they can’t they usually find something else to blame it on. One of my first bosses liked to say that the best government is a benevolent dictatorship. I think he thought this because a dictator can make people take the medicine they need that will make them better in the long run even though it may not be pleasant in the short run. Voters are like I was as a kid, they don’t like doing something even in the short run that tastes bad or in some way makes them uncomfortable. Politicians running for election are not going to say things that make the voters uncomfortable, they are much more likely to promise to make things better without any discomfort. Of course my early boss would add the observation that benevolent dictators tend not to stay benevolent. This observation I think is also true and puts us in a dilemma which has no easy or obvious solution.
What made me think of all this today is an article on the Editorial page of the paper by Walter Williams – a black college professor at George Mason University. He started his column off with the following observation:
A guiding principle for physicians is primum non nocere, the Latin expression for “first, do no harm”. In order not to do harm, whether it’s with medicine or public policy, the first order of business is accurate diagnostics.
He goes on to talk specifically about whether all the racial problems today can be explained by racial discrimination. I think he makes a pretty convincing case that all of today’s problems can’t be blamed on racial discrimination. Not that he denies there is any racial discrimination, but he thinks that is not the only cause – maybe not even the major cause. He finished up his column with the following:
Intellectuals and political hustlers who blame the plight of so many blacks on poverty, racial discrimination and the “legacy of slavery” are complicit in the socioeconomic and moral decay. But one can earn money, prestige and power in the victimhood game.
He then quotes Booker T. Washington, who observed;
There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs – partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.
Booker T. Washington could have broadened his comments to include today’s politicians. Some politicians may not want to solve real problems, because it’s not necessary to keep their jobs. Career politicians make money out of their political jobs and their main objective often seems to be to keep their jobs by getting re-elected. To do this they make promises that are what people want to hear. They promise to solve problems without pain – with medicine that doesn’t taste bad. In today’s paper, another columnist – John Stossel – says that he is glad he doesn’t have to cover either of the party conventions since he “despises” most politicians. He has concluded that they “have little to say that’s interesting”, and believes that many are “craven opportunists, desperate to rule over others”. That may be a little harsh, but I think that many politicians are like the people Booker T. Washington talks about. Most have the objective of getting re-elected, and to do that they don’t need to make accurate diagnoses of real problems. To do so might require medicine that tastes bad so they make up symptoms and solutions that sound good and cause no pain to their supporters. As long as they do what they have promised, they can run again whether the real problems are solved or not. If they have a good bed-side manner and do what they promised in the campaign, they have a good chance of getting re-elected. And as voters, we probably don’t know what the root causes of our problems are any more than we know the real causes when we go to the doctor.
There is a new book out titled Democracy for Realists – Why Elections Do Not produce Responsive Government. I have only just read the first part of the book, so I do not know if they have come up with a cure. But from what they wrote in the introduction, it doesn’t sound like they have. But it seems to be well researched and questions much of the conventional wisdom about democracies. One of the conventional wisdom’s is that the voters will vote for what they believe are the best solutions to society’s problems. They say that this requires information and analysis that the voter doesn’t have or do. This would require time and effort that most voters don’t do or want to do because they are busy trying to earn a living and do things that they personally need or like to do. This doesn’t really allow them time to understand the problems and alternative solutions in any depth. I also believe this is made worse today, because most of our problems are more complicated – scientifically and otherwise – than they were 100 years ago. So rather than understand the core problems and reasonable alternatives that do not have a lot of “untended consequences”, they tend to make superficial decisions about voting which may be mostly influenced by what the politicians say and what may be reported in the news or on the internet. Most of this information is superficial and doesn’t speak in any depth to core issues and the pluses and minuses of various alternatives.
This problem is also compounded by the fact that today we expect the government to help us with more stuff. 150 years or so ago de Tocqueville was impressed with the U.S. version of democracy because our culture was such that most Americans seemed to feel responsible for their own well-being. They tended to help each other when someone needed help and did not seem to expect the government to do a lot of things for them. He observed that this was not true of most people in Europe. Feeling individually responsible for our own well-being may have been one thing that set us apart and made our country great. In the last 100 years we’ve seemed to change and now expect the government to do things that make our life easier. Some of this may have been brought on by the industrial revolution and shifts during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. But it may not be good.
But that is a discussion for another time. In the meantime, let it be said that doctors get patients and income because they make accurate diagnoses and solve real problems. We expect discomfort during treatment, and we are the judge of whether we are cured or not. But in today’s political system, politicians get to define the problem, a painless solution, and then declare the original problem solved. If there is more discomfort, they declare that is the result of a new problem which has another proposed painless solution. And the voter may not understand enough to know what’s right and so is not really in charge.
It sounds like the authors of the democracy book see the same problems but may not have a good answer either. My old boss was probably right about benevolent dictators. As long as they are benevolent they may be like doctors, committed to make the patient well and live longer. But they probably won’t stay benevolent. Democracy may not be the perfect answer, so it’s a conundrum, without a good answer. In the first chapter of the book they quote Winston Churchill who said, “democracy may be the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.” The lesser of evils?