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[This is for Kasper, my Norwegian friend]

If all politicians were honest, government would still suck. But people believe on the contrary.

People adjust their behaviour according to the protocol of moral values. Thus they are able to live in society.

Those moral values are defined by the needs of society and not the other way around. Example: it is bad to steal because that rule makes people jealous and greedy and thus they try harder to accumulate things, making society as a whole richer. The badness of stealing has nothing to do with respect for the next human being, or property, or merit, or any other abstract category.

Morals are surprisingly dependent on the culture the person is brought on. Almost every kind of brutality can be considered honourable and respectful depending on who you ask.

Follows that imposing a moral code in order to create social order is bound to cause more trouble than it solves. The delicate balance of the group must be enforced through codes of behaviour, but those codes cannot be set in advance. They have to be negotiated as the society structures itself.

From the point of view of someone that lives on a reasonably stable society, in which those rules of conduct have been negotiated for centuries (and this negotiation includes creating efficient mechanisms of punishment), it might be easy to think that a somewhat basic set of of values are needed to any conceivable society.

This opinion reflects first the ethnocentrism that any culture needs to enforce itself, but also the fact that it is more difficult to renegotiate values than to negotiate them at first.

Now, if moral rules allow people to live in bigger groups, the rules have to be imposed on the leaders with even more strength. After all, they are opinion-makers. Their ideas will be copied and propagated throughout society.

But leaders, being able to propagate their opinions, are also able to select which opinions are worth propagating. And those ideas include the judgements and choices that will become moral values on the long run. That is, at the same time that they are the ones more strongly pressed to obey the rules, they are also the ones who have the power to change those rules.

And this is so no matter if the leaders of the society have chosen or not to change the moral values in their own benefit!

To “be honest” is “act in accordance with the moral standards of the society who nurtures you”. But society is a complex and expanding system. It is not a simple machine, where balance depends on a few variables. To be draconian about honesty in politicians is not a powerful mechanism of fostering development.

Please notice that i am not saying that politicians should be corrupt, i am just saying that the problem of government is more complex than that.

Now, for instance, take The rule “politicians should not steal”. OK. But what is the difference between stealing and taxes?

Now when i say this, i am certain to have conjured some tragic mental image of the poor kids in the orphanage whose milk-money has been diverted for the building of some greedy-pig’s swimming pool.

But when you remove the drama, what’s left is simply a allocation of resources problem. And in this case simply dividing the resources into equal shares is a very bad solution. Naive plain distribution is simply the lowest efficiency distribution possible except for actually throwing resources away.

I do agree that the poor children should have their milk, and i do agree that better resource-allocation mechanisms are needed (particularly in Brazil). But this is an administrative issue, not a moral one. What are needed are better accounting tools, better communication means for the governed, and probably also some better mathematics.

Enhancing the honesty of politicians can at best ameliorate the short-term situation (by cost-cutting). But it cannot guarantee a government capable of making a society stand on it’s feet and face it’s future with freedom.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] But now that people do have this “honest visage” maintained, you can only call him if you have proof. You have institutionalized not only the politics (that is, the power structures) but also the ethics of it. And institutionalized ethics is morals… […]

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