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 élite — 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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