Punishment by politics

February 28, 2013

The elections in Italy reveal a crisis in leadership. Wolfgang Münchau blames Mario Monti’s defeat on a lack of political realism – code for cynicism. Paul Krugman blames it not just on Monti but on a European elite – or ‘Very Serious People’.

in Europe even more than in the US the Very Serious People live in a bubble of self-regard at their own seriousness, and imagine that the general public will follow their lead — hey, it’s the only responsible thing to do.

As a member of an organization that brings together people in leadership roles, an activity that attracts blame from Mr Krugman, I can perhaps offer a different perspective.

There is a challenge to leadership in the world today. And that challenge is us. The extension of education, and the privilege of escaping the needs of our grandparents, have left us more powerful than ever as individuals, but – as individuals – isolated.

Like James Frazer’s sacred kings, we want leaders we can sacrifice or scapegoat. Democracy’s particular benevolence is that it removes the guillotine from the process of disposing of them. But the tasks of ‘holding office’ remain beyond the ballot box. The responsibilities we want to abrogate our actually our own. The vehicles for collective delivery are numerous: our employers, the corporations we purchase from, the franchise we exercise, the taxation we pay.

Do we work in silent acquiescence? Do we buy what we don’t need? Do we vote our interest? Do we pay as little in taxes as possible? Yes. But we tell ourselves that these are private failings, that their collective sum is not our responsibility.

The world we experience is not an aggregate of our individual acts of commission and omission. It is a place where those with more status, or money, or power are to blame. And don’t think for one minute that those we blame are not in turn uniquely aware of those to blame above them, or beyond their own bubble.

Despite advances in medical knowledge, there are still corners of the world where disease is blamed on witchcraft. Despite the explanatory powers of modern economics, there are still people wishing to look for someone or some group to burn, if only – for the moment – figuratively.

This is Beppe Grillo, the surprise anti-politics success of the Italian election:

We haven’t been aware that this is a generational war …What makes me feel really ill are the millions of people that have been staying afloat in the crisis, that have just been marginally affected by the crisis, that have managed to just get by to the detriment of the other lot of millions of people that cannot go on any more. Italy’s problem is this set of people. And as long as the salaries and the pensions of these people are not at risk it’s fine to immobilise the country. But this won’t last long. This situation won’t last long at all.

However ready we are to fall victim to our own cognitive biases, punishing people is not good politics, and nor will it ever be good economics.

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