Recognizing the good politicians

From The Vancouver Sun. November 16, 2011, p. A15.

Some people say politicians are no good. They’re all the same – they’re only in it for themselves.

Others say politicians get a bad rap. Politics is a tough life, one that demands finding a balance between power and principle, between the interests of the party and the public interest.

Recently we had a taste of this debate when two Opposition New Democratic Party members of Parliament from Thunder Bay, Ont., voted with the Conservative government to scrap the long-gun registry. They were promptly muzzled, removed from their committee posts, and their travel privileges were suspended.

They were punished by party brass for doing what they thought was right for their constituents. This is the kind of thing that turns off many voters.

Getting good people to go into politics is an age-old problem, one that preoccupied ancient philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Confucius. They believed that a well-governed state demanded virtuous citizen and rulers.

The most important virtue in politics is what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” In their book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe define this as the moral will and skill to deliberate and act on what is right for one’s self and community, and to do so for the right reasons.

The idea that we are ethical problemsolvers has found surprising support in research from a range of fields.

Kiley Hamlin at the University of B.C. has found that babies prefer those who help rather than harm others, as well as those who reward positive social behaviour and punish wrongdoers – even before they can speak!

Neuroscientists have identified oxytocin as a crucial hormone that fosters caring and reciprocity among mammals. It kicks in when we care for offspring or engage in other forms of sociability. As Patricia Churchland says in her recent book Braintrust: “It feels good to do good.”

Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that empathy is part of the evolutionary advantage that humans share with other mammals.

I’m not arguing that moral character comes naturally. We are all capable of appalling ethical lapses.

Fifty years ago, Stanley Milgram demonstrated that experimental subjects were willing to administer lethal dosages of electroshocks to others simply because they were told to do so by a scientist. But my colleague Sylvia Berryman recently argued that even these experiments should not lead us to conclude that practical wisdom is beyond our grasp.

Milgram’s subjects failed to properly perceive the ethical decision they faced and thus acted in ways they would later regret.

But they were nevertheless making ethical choices: to support science, to be obedient to authority.

They just didn’t understand that the experimenter had put them in an ethical position that required them to step outside one role and play another.

We learn ethics through experience, not by reading textbooks or following rules.

As Aristotle put it: “We become brave by exposing ourselves to danger and learning to make light of it.” Similarly, politics demands what Max Weber called a “trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life and – [measuring] up to them inwardly.”

We need to pay a lot more attention to how our major institutions structure the roles which shape how we act – and what we experience.

Canadians enjoy some of the best political institutions in the world. But the power of Parliament has been steadily eroded.

Parliament is a place for deliberation and legislation. It is the one branch of government whose supreme duty it is to make the general rules by which all citizens shall abide.

A recent study by the Samara Foundation found that MPs perform a variety of roles beyond the traditional conventions of the Westminster system. The Parliament is supposed to legislate, hold the government accountable and determine the life of the government through votes of confidence.

Today MPs do many other things besides. They have to find a balance between representing constituents and doing what they think is best; between advocating local and the national interest; between advancing the interests of their party and doing what is right for the country; between providing services to voters and developing policy and legislation.

Sadly, parliamentarians increasingly do what party leaders tell them rather than what they think is right. Subordination to the party begins with the nomination process, a typically opaque and poorly regulated affair. Individual candidates often come out of the process more beholden to the party machine than to constituents.

When they get into Parliament, elected officials are often unsure what they are supposed to be doing. It quickly becomes clear that legislation is a small part of their job. Why? The process of making policy has been concentrated in the hands of party leaders, the cabinet, and above all the prime minister.

Parliamentarians routinely vote for bills they don’t like, or don’t understand. To the extent they are involved in meaningful deliberation it is in committees or the caucus. What the media see are the circus antics of Question Period.

The media contribute to excessive partisanship by reporting adversarial theatrics to the detriment of the less entertaining behind-the-scenes work.

Is it possible for Canadians to take back Parliament? Not if we simply tune out. As Plato said, the greatest punishment for those who refuse to rule is to be governed by those less worthy.

A better response is to reward politicians who demonstrate they have the practical wisdom to figure out what is right for their communities and to act accordingly.

Which brings us back to the dissident MPs in Thunder Bay. Whatever one may think of the long-gun registry, surely MPs should be allowed to speak for their constituents without being muzzled.

We the people authorize MPs to legislate on our behalf. Should we allow political parties – publicly funded organizations – to control their votes to the point that they no longer speak for us?

Our system is built on the principle of parliamentary supremacy. In practice we have a partyarchy – the rule of political parties at the expense of our constitutional order. We need politicians with the moral skill and will to restore balance to our parliamentary system.

Maxwell A. Cameron is director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at UBC, which is organizing a conference on “Why (More) Good People Don’t Enter Politics” on Nov. 24-25. As Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, he has also organized a colloquium series on Practical Wisdom with additional sponsorship from Green College.

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