Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Whatever politicians are, they aren’t rational


THERE are two sources of support for those who find conspiracies behind the creation of the Covid State, who believe that it must all be about ‘something else’.   

One is the ‘they know they are lying’ argument of former Pfizer executive and research scientist Mike Yeadon and others, who suggest that even if the politicians don’t fully realise that the Wuhan virus is not a global threat, their public health advisers surely do. They therefore MUST know that they are telling lies, day after day. If they are lying, why?  Who or what is behind the Covid State’s lies? On this view, there must be something hidden and menacing in play. 

The second source of support for seeing Covid conspiracies is the fact that so many of the decisions taken by democratic governments are so patently stupid and pointless. So much of what has passed for rational decision-making – ‘we are simply following the science’ – is risible. Locking up the healthy rather than protecting the vulnerable? Making people wear masks that, for decades, we have known not to work? Allowing people with life-threatening illnesses to die for want of attention from supposedly stretched hospitals and doctors? Wrecking the economy? Changing the rules every other day on a whim? Spending billions on contact-trace technology that achieves nothing save spreading further needless panic? The very idea that governments can control, let alone eliminate, rapidly spreading viruses? 

Now, there are a number of explanations other than the two obvious ones – conspiracy or stuff-up – that seek to explain the flight from rationality of our politicians and their ‘expert’ advisers these past eighteen months. Elementary political science tells us that there are several models of decision-making seeking to explain why politicians do the things they do. 

One theory is called ‘the rational actor model’, and it might well sum up what the ordinary punter believes to be abilities and motivations of governments. This model assumes that well-informed politicians with a clear understanding of the problem to be solved think through the options and make the best choice. Perhaps even use some cost-benefit analysis. Clarify the problem, list the options, weigh the issues carefully, consider likely outcomes, recognise the downsides of any actions taken, be consistent, measure success (evaluate) with standardised and agreed methods.

I know – try not to laugh. But the rational actor model probably best described how the bureaucracy used to work. Frank, fearless advice based on research and understanding of issues was offered to elected officials by disinterested public servants. That proposition is now as naïve as believing that their political masters are rational actors. 

But you would like to think that politicians should aspire to be well-motivated, well-informed and determined to achieve the best outcome possible for the good of the country or state over which they preside. 

Yet we seem to be falling very, very short of the ideal. Politicians are nowadays greedy, motivated by career, factionalised, prone to lying, controlled by outside interests, fearful of losing their power and seemingly willing to do anything to get off the hook. They are patently driven by the enjoyment of power, accessing the perks of office, protecting their mates, setting up post-political career opportunities and settling scores. There is little evidence that they are focused on problem solving (as per the rational actor model), even remotely interested in it or equipped to do it. 

A second model of decision-making has been called ‘bounded rationality’. This is the idea that time-poor politicians facing complex problems do not seek the best policy, but are satisfied with an ‘acceptable’ solution, achieving as good an outcome as can be expected under the circumstances. 

A third model of decision-making is called ‘incrementalism’. This suggests that no political decision is made in isolation. Every decision builds on what is already there. Its chief advocate (an American called Charles Lindblom) calls the approach ‘muddling through’. 

A fourth model is that democracies consist of interest groups all vying for influence over decision-making, and that politicians simply respond to these interest groups in the decisions they make. They especially respond to loud, persistent, clever, monied interest groups. Like Big Pharma, perhaps? Or Big Tech? If this sounds corrupt, it is. 

A fifth model of politics – public choice theory – suggests that politicians and bureaucrats have selfish interests like voters and like sellers and buyers in the marketplace that is the economy, and that they make decisions according to this self-interest. Leaders look out for number one. This is getting very warm, and isn’t remotely surprising. Nothing has been so clear during the Covid affair as the self-interest of politicians.

So, we have an array of theories trying to explain how politicians make decisions.  But nothing, nothing, in the study of politics or of decision-making explains fully why governments all over the world simultaneously threw sanity out the window in seeking to deal with a middling, flu-like virus.

Two conclusions can confidently be reached, however. One is that to date there hasn’t been a sliver of very thin paper between the major parties on Covid policy. Right, left or centre, they are all equally panicked, all pandering to the fear in the community that they themselves have created, all scared witless – in the age of the social media pile-on – of instant electoral retribution. All are ignoring science, all are either crushing dissent or ridiculing those (few) who question their approach, and none are remotely able or willing to ask their advisers hard questions, and in doing so to act as our representatives in a quest for the truth. 

The second conclusion relates to something called the ‘Overton Window’, which explains what governments are willing and unwilling to do when making decisions. How far they feel comfortable going. It is their window of opportunity (named after the guy who thought this model up), their area of safety, the constraints that stop them doing anything too ‘courageous’, as the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby would have said.   

Another name for this is the ‘meerkat theory of politics’. Meerkats emerge from their hidey-holes and look around to see what dangers there are and what possibilities are open to them. Our Covid politicians are like meerkats. They see what they might be able to get away with. They venture a little farther from the hidey-hole, but still look over their shoulders for electoral danger.  

What the political class has done since March 2020 is massively to expand the Overton Window. The political science textbook has been thrown out and a new set of theories is needed to explain why freedom and economies have been destroyed.   

We-the-people have allowed them to do this. We have let them throw away the rule book. Like the slowly boiling frog, we have sat there doing almost nothing, saying almost nothing, while our freedoms have been trashed. Now we are willing to stay locked in our home for no good reason, to bump elbows with friends, to dob in our neighbours for doing nothing remotely wrong or dangerous, to watch breathlessly every new announcement by a health bureaucrat, to tell the Government our whereabouts, to bow before the violent actions of thug-police, to have experimental, yet-to-be-approved drugs injected into our bodies, and to abuse anyone who won’t do these things. 

Whatever else they are, our leaders are not being remotely rational. And yes, as Mike Yeadon says, they ARE lying and they must know their decisions are stupid and, on balance, massively harmful. 

What on earth is the rule book for that? 

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Paul Collits
Paul Collits
Paul Collits is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Quadrant Online

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