Sunday, January 04, 2004

People tend to feel more safe, when they feel " in control ".  I put the phrase " in control " in quotes to indicate the subjective nature of this feeling.  In the post 9/11 world, the people of the United States of America want leaders who can help them to feel safe.  This poses a paradox for politicians.  The reason is this: if a politician is in control, then the public is not.  However, if politician is not in control, then he or she does not appear to assess the capacity to keep the people safe.  

Of course, politicians instinctively recognize this paradox.  Traditionally, they address it as follows: they try to project an image of themselves such that all individual voters each have a belief, that the politician would act as the voter would in any given situation.  After all, you do not need to be in control if the person who actually is in control would do the exact same thing that you would.  

I believe that this is one of the reasons that political litmus tests are so significant.  For example, examine the significance of the abortion debate.  Presumably, for most individual voters, the stance a politician takes on abortion is very unlikely to have a significant effect on an individual's own life.  Yet, if the voter wants to feel safe, it may be comforting to know that the politician has the same stance on abortion as he or she does.  That it is because it provides credence to the belief that the politician would act as the voter would.  That is, it is easier to believe that a person would do the same thing as you would in situation B, if you know that that person would do the same as you in situation A.  

Of course, as appealing as this line of reasoning his, it is inherently fallacious.  One idiosyncrasy of human reasoning is that people tend to believe that any sample of behavior that they're seeing is a random sample.  In most ordinary situations this is a fair, if tentative, assumption.  If, however, the person whom you are observing deliberately provides you with a non-random sample, it then becomes likely that you will draw false conclusions regarding the probable direction of their future behavior.  

A skillful politician will provide do with just enough data points so that you are likely to conclude that the politician would act as you would in any given situation.  Following the election, the politician will endeavor to make it appear as though his or her behavior is consistent with your values.  It can be extremely difficult to determine whether not this actually is correct.  For example, if you value education, you probably want a politician who will advocate a pro education agenda.  If the politician you elect then passes something called the " no child left behind " law, how do you know that this behavior in fact was consistent with your values? The fact is, this is very difficult to determine.  Of course the title of a law is a political construct, and cannot be relied upon to be indicative of the content of the law. (Personally, I think we should pass a law called "Joseph's law " that makes it illegal to refer to a law by anything other than a number;  no more cute, but misleading, nicknames.)   

I would like to suggest that we all get into the habit of habitually checking to see if politicians actually did what they said there were going to do.  In the case of the " no child left behind " law, does the passage of this bill indicates that the politician in fact has a pro education agenda? In this particular case, the answer can be seen by looking at the funding.  Most of the recent news articles indicate that the funding provided by the law is terribly deficient.  I'm not going to painstakingly transcribe all of the links to prove the point.  Rather, I suggest that you go to http:\\news.google.com and run a search on the phrase "no child left behind."

If you conclude that the passage of this law was consistent with the author's of stated intent, I encourage you to feel safe in the knowledge that your elected officials are acting in a manner consistent with their stated values.  If, on the other hand, you conclude that this law is a sorry attempt to portray an appearance of concern, without backing up that concern with allocated funds, then you might start feeling a little less safe right now.