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The need for political skepticism

Nobody reads essays anymore, especially those from the early twentieth-century era. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that the large majority of our “pulp library” is still in California (most of the books are in my sister’s garage and some in my cousin’s attic).  If you want to know how unconventional our US-to-India move  was, check out A sense of satisfaction… and accomplishment. We managed to bring 10-odd books with us, sorta “Desert Island mini library”. The rest of the books are coming home  via a patent-pending “Web 2.0 meets slow-boat-to-China” shipping strategy – more on that in a separate post.

Bertrand Russell’s Skeptical Essays was a volume I picked up at one of the annual Bangalore book fairs in Palace Grounds. As you can imagine, it’s not easy reading but compared to other philosophy works, several essays are lucid enough. I found the eleventh essay, The Need for Political Skepticism, particularly educational and relevant to put in perspective the struggling and bumbling democracy that is India. Remember that this essay was delivered as a a presidential address to the Students Union of London School of Economics and Political Science in 1923!

On political parties

One of the peculiarities of the English-speaking world is its immense interest and belief in political parties. A very large percentage of English-speaking people really believe that the ills from which they suffer would be cured if a certain political party were in power. That is a reason for the swing of the pendulum. A man votes for one party and remains miserable; he concludes that it is the other party that was to bring the millennium. By the time he is disenchanted with all parties, he is an old man on the verge of death; his sons retain the belief of his youth, and the see-saw goes on.

I want to suggest that, if we are to do any good in politics, we must view political questions in a different way. A party which is to obtain power must, in a democracy, make an appeal to which a majority of the nation responds. For reasons which will appear in the course of the argument, an appeal which is widely successful, with the existing democracy, can hardly fail to be harmful. Therefore no important political party is likely to have a useful programme, and if useful measures are to be passed, it must be by means of some other machinery than party government. How to combine any such machinery with democracy is one of the most urgent problems of our time.

On specialists in party politics

There are at present two very different kinds of specialists in political questions. On the one hand there are the practical politicians of all parties; on the other hand there are the experts, mainly civil servants, but also economists, financiers, scientific medical men, etc. Each of these two classes has a special kind of skill. The skill of the politician consists in guessing what people can be brought to think advantageous to themselves; the skill of the expert consists in calculating what really is advantageous, provided people can be brought to think so. (The proviso is essential, because measures which arouse serious resentment are seldom advantageous, whatever merits they have otherwise.) The power of the politician, in a democracy, depends upon his adopting the opinions which seem right to the average man. It is useless to urge that politicians ought to be high-handed enough to advocate what enlightened opinion considers good, because if they do they are swept aside for others. Moreover, the intuitive skill that they require in forecasting opinion does not imply any skill whatever in forming their own opinions, so that many of the ablest (from a party-political point of view) will be in a position to advocate, quite honestly, measures which the majority think good, but which experts know to be bad. There is therefore no point in moral exhortations to politicians to be disinterested, except in the crude sense of not taking bribes.

On politicians

Wherever party politics exist, the appeal of a politician is primarily to a section, while his opponents appeal to an opposite section. His success depends upon turning his section into a majority. A measure which appeals to all sections equally will presumably be common ground between the parties, and will therefore be useless to the party politician. Consequently he concentrates attention upon those measures which are disliked by the section that forms the nucleus of his opponents’ supporters. Moreover, a measure, however admirable, is useless to a politician unless he can give reasons for it which will appear convincing to the average man when set forth in a platform speech. We have thus two conditions which must be fulfilled by the measures on which party politicians lay stress: (1) They must seem to favour the needs of a section of the nation; (2) the arguments for them must be of the utmost simplicity. Of course this does not apply to a time of war, because then the party conflict is suspended in favour of conflict with the external enemy. In war, the arts of the politician are expended in neutrals, who correspond to the doubtful voter in ordinary politics. The late war showed that, as we should have expected, democracy affords an admirable training for the business of appealing to neutrals. That was one of the main reasons why democracy won the war. It is true it lost the peace; but that is another question.

There are more nuggets of beauty in this essay so I’ll likely post a part 2 in the future.