We always find that politicians keep changing their tunes. One said, “I will not hire this individual as a peon” but later changed to a new jingle, “he is my best buddy and counsellor”. In another case it was claimed that someone belonged “to a murderous league” and later, as political necessity changed, that same “murderous” league became our newest “band of brothers”. Yet another claimed, with tears in his eyes signaling sincerity and deep emotional conviction and commitment, that his life’s work was to “glorify the values espoused by our Cromwell” which mutated later in the later years to “I am fighting for civilian supremacy” (this one now rationalizes this mutation by claiming that this transformation was part of evolutionary process!).
Taboo tradeoff to a Tragic tradeoff
These changing tunes of politicians come from their one and only grundnorm: Necessity. As political exigencies change, all politicians modify their refrains. The extreme variations are put on public display when their incentives and circumstances change: they say one thing when in power, and say another thing when in opposition. Actually, according to Steven Pinker, the work of politician can be seen as reframing a Taboo tradeoff into a Tragic tradeoff. That may be the reason why they keep changing their tunes as they are constantly reframing the debate and rationalizing their current and newest (overt) position.
Taboo tradeoff relates to sacred values that we must never negotiate or barter away, whatever the offer price. Actually, we must exhibit indignation even if an offer is made for trading off such a scared value (e.g., selling one’s offspring). Even momentary consideration of the tradeoff of, not to speak of non-adherence to, such a sacred value is considered a taboo.
Tragic tradeoff, on the other hand, relates to circumstances when two equally sacred values are at stake, and a decision has to be made, either by the community or by the specific individual, which of the two equally weighted values is to be considered more important and hence not negotiated away, and must be clung to, and which is to be bargained away. Because of these two forms of tradeoffs, politicians justify and rationalize their actions in different ways when they are in power and when they are in opposition. That is why their self-serving tune changes.
Sacred value of democracy in the land of the pious
For the politician in power, the incentive is to maintain the overt stance that no Taboo tradeoff is at stake. For example, the politician in power (in our land of the pious and the pure) will always assert that ceding de jure and democratic powers to de facto authorities is not a Taboo tradeoff, as the sacred value of democracy and constitutional rule is not been negotiated or whittled away.
Not worth peons of yesterday will become bosom buddies of today, “murderous” league of yesteryears will become newfound “band of brothers” [Shakespeare]
The politician in power will reframe this tradeoff debate by emphasizing that actually two equal sacred values are at stake at the current moment: the first value is, dangerous neighborhood and consequential Hobbesian security dilemma (fifth-generation libretto), and the second value is, adherence to and compliance with sacred processes of democracy and constitutional law.
Hence, when de jure and democratic powers are sculpted away by de facto authorities, the politician in power will claim that no Taboo tradeoff is happening due to such unlawful and unconstitutional sculpting process. Only a Tragic tradeoff is being made between Security and Democracy, both of which are equally sacred considerations and values. Hence, as per necessity and exigency, the politician in power will support the “one-pager system” (that we have today) by reframing the debate about tradeoffs, and claiming that his actions must be seen in terms of Tragic tradeoff and not Taboo tradeoff.
A toast to ‘professionalism’
On the other hand, the politician in opposition has the incentive to avow that the story-line of government about Tragic tradeoff, fifth generation script, is all hogwash. She will claim that in reality all the ills of the country are because of that Taboo tradeoff: the sacred value of democracy is being traded away under the garb of “one-pager system” necessitated by hooey of fifth-generation story-line. Hence, the politician in opposition will decry the Taboo tradeoff and refute claims of government of facing a Tragic tradeoff.
That is why we usually find that the politician in opposition claim to be moved by moralistic considerations (civilian supremacy), while the one in power will declare to be governed by realistic and pragmatic necessities (one-pager system). And once the position of incentives and circumstances change, the politicians, as all of them have souls of acrobats, change their self-serving tune.
There is an interesting scene in the movie “The Remains of The Day” (based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2017 Nobel Prize) in which the American politician after listening to the European leaders talking of principles, honor, and stuff, raises a toast to the British host Lord Darlington, and says something to this effect, which captures what we experience in changing of tunes:
“Gentlemen, I have listened to your talk of principles, honor etc. This is all nonsense. These are things of the old. Decent, honest, well-meaning things are past politics. Stuff of the ‘amateur’ politicians. I’ll be frank. You are just a bunch of naive dreamers. The present world is no longer for gentlemen amateurs. You are good people, but you have no idea what sort of place the world has become. It’s time you switch to what we have in the US. You need ‘professional’ politicians, who can get into power to do things they would like to. Outside the corridors of power, you are a fish outside the water. So, gentlemen, let me make a toast. To ‘professionalism’.”
So, let us remember that we are suffering from “professional” politicians in the land of the pious and the pure. Let not get carried away either by the realist (Tragic tradeoff claimants in power) or altruists (Taboo tradeoff claimants in opposition): neither of them believes in either of their positions. “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to See the things thou dost not” [Shakespeare: King Lear]. They all know only one law, and their grundnorm is only one: Necessity. In future also, their self-serving tunes will change when their incentives will change, and when the centurion Pied Pipers, the supra-politicians (the selectors) will change the tune of the band.
Our political system caught between amoral politicians and unlettered voters, always remains vulnerable to overt and covert capture by those omniscient “angelic” forces, with their eyes and ears all around
Hence, as long as we are governed by the national grundnorm of Necessity, we will continue to experience these changing tunes, on all sides. Not worth peons of yesterday will become bosom buddies of today, “murderous” league of yesteryears will become newfound “band of brothers” [Shakespeare], and zealous Cromwell devotees will continue to wage crusades for “civilian supremacy”, with of course much heightened commitment during opposition days.
“But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.”
[Shakespeare: Measure For Measure]
The interesting question is how come the hoi polloi allow those with “little brief authority” to change their tune with such brazen-faced shamelessness and still to get away with their consistent contradictions (U-Turns)? Why do they get this chance to unswervingly try to fool people all the time? Some of the more “scurvy” ones even try to tempt fate by defying Lincoln’s wise dictum: “you can fool some people some of the time, all people some of the time, but not all the people, all the time.” Do we have collective amnesia that we forget all the contradictory things they said or did in the past? Or have we already set the bar so low that we do not get shocked when we witness the latest U-turn and we keep calm and carry on knowing fully well that the latest self-serving statement is as insincere and devious as the last one?
Read more: The Evolution of Civil Services in Pakistan
Maybe we tolerate such amoral leadership because we keep changing our own views and positions, and knowing that we are all fallible human beings we do not keep books and record to penalize such “scurvy politicians” who just like us mortals keep changing their positions and statements? “Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy” [Plato, the elitist encore on people].
Can an average voter understand politics
It is said that most soldiers worry more about letting down the fellow-soldiers in their unit than about allegiance to an entity as abstract as the nation. The same could be said about our voters too. People vote more out of their feelings toward their tribe, community, friends, and family, rather than on a set manifesto of a political party. In fact, the average voter in a rural area cannot even distinguish between forms of government—parliamentary, presidential, or a hybrid. To him the ruler is a “Badshah”. May be at subliminal level we are contented and satisfied with the very fact that those who have been given “little brief authority” are at least trying to defend and rationalize whatever they are doing or saying and at least seem to seek our approval or approbation, which in itself is not a small step for mankind.
May be the “scurvy politicians” know all about our own failings (we change our own positions, we suffer from myopia, and we are pleased watching “Badshah” trying to defend their latest eccentricities) and that is why they keep changing their tunes and even then get away with it without major penalty? May be that is the reason that “scurvy” politicians can very easily get away with whatever they say and then do, or not do, without losing their power base. If that is so, then rest assured they have very little incentive to stick to any policy or principles. Since the only thing that drives them is acquisition of power, and pelf, they will bend whichever way they find it convenient, knowing full well that hoi polloi will not be able to keep books and accounts of their previous foibles. Such amoral leadership may be the cause why our historical progress seems like a circular motion, and sometimes spiral motion, facing downwards.
The ones in power at any time are always happy to rationalize this historic failure to improve the public school-system as another example of a Tragic tradeoff between two equal scared values of Security and Education
Education is limited to few, and wisdom to even fewer
The only sure, though not revolutionary, way out of amoral leadership is educated populace, who can have more firm and reasoned opinions and views, can think, analyze, and remember what was said by whom (media and technology now help in that process), and can evaluate policies and actions of those who have “little brief authority”. And while the media and the entrenched politicians will game the system to keep their pelf going, it is crucial for those who want to bring an end to this merry-go-round of amoral power (Necessity) politics to bring home to the general public how this cabal has benefited itself by entangling them in non-issues. In this age of mass availability of information through social media, people will need a constant realization of this. While information is widely available, education is limited to few, and wisdom to still fewer. So, it is for the wise to separate the wheat from the chaff. The alternative is not an option.
Our political system caught between amoral politicians and unlettered voters, always remains vulnerable to overt and covert capture by those omniscient “angelic” forces, with their eyes and ears all around, who are always searching for opportunities to install their own “cabinet of all talents”, so that those cabinets kowtow to them alone and to no one else. Our greatest hope, the long term cure of our political maladies, lies in an educated electorate, who can serve as the “guardians of order and liberty”.
A reasonable vote is the ultimate game changer
Only a voter who can exercise reason, keep record and books, and analyse facts and patterns, in order to see through and expose the changing tunes and shenanigans of those who have “little brief authority” can really become ultimate game changer. Unless that time comes when intellectually sophisticated populace can see that the “Badshah” has no clothes on, the political system in the land of the pious and the pure, will remain hostage to takeover or subversion or poison by more potent supra-political forces in the land, who themselves operate with their own Aristotelian “noble falsehoods” and change their tunes and bands just like the “scurvy politicians”, in accordance with national grundnorm of Necessity.
Read more: Politicians could not unite against COVID-19
May be “scurvy politicians” know that education of the masses is the best “safeguard of order and liberty”, that is why, in the land of the pious and the pure, we hardly find even one politician who is wedded to horizontal and vertical extension and improvement of public-school system. These amoral leaders know that the day they have to face an educated and intelligent populace, all their jingles and tunes and the changes that they keep making to those refrains, will be exposed and they will be punished for their foibles, inconsistencies, and U-turns. The ones in power at any time are always happy to rationalize this historic failure to improve the public school-system as another example of a Tragic tradeoff between two equal scared values of Security and Education.
Asim Imdad Ali is currently a partner in an Islamabad-based law firm. He earlier served in Central Superior Services, at positions of increasing responsibility, in its prestigious DMG group (1992-2006), and later served as Head of legal and regulatory affairs in a major multinational company. He is LLB (gold) from Punjab University, LLM from Kings College London, and did Masters in Public Administration at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University where he was an Edward S Mason Fellow. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.