Unfortunately, I have not had opportunity yet to read Bertrand Russell’s famous work “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, however, a quote floating around the interwebs has gotten me wondering. Why are so many aspects of governance seemingly unquantifiable? Apart from measuring how much we spend, that is. The left and right fight over pretty much everything. Over the military, over infrastructure, over education, over health, and on, and on, however, in many of these discussions the only justification for success seems to be how much is spent. This is especially so in Defence. But why is this? And how much damage is it doing to the political discourse?
The Bertrand Russell quote in question, is this: “If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.”
Politics is one of the few things in life in which the opinion and wishes of the ignorant are taken seriously, and often heeded. Whether it’s the population of the electorate (including myself), the media, the bureaucrats, or even elected officials, in order to affect change it is not necessary to have any expertise or experience in a particular field. It is not necessary to be a scientist in order to vote or construct policies on issues of science. Teaching experience is not required to pontificate on the state of our education system. And one does not have to have served in the military in order to judge on that either. In some respects, this is a good thing. For a country to be a real democracy we cannot restrict decision making to a select few. However, it is also having disastrous consequences on our political discourse.
As he often was, Russell was on the ball. Many aspects of governance are tenuous. Whether or not government programs are successful is often not readily apparent. What’s more alarming, however, is that the vitriolic political discourse is increasingly congregating around these issues. Why? Precisely because there are no readily available facts or evidence upon which the electorate can base decisions. The political parties can say whatever they want and get away with it. They can create wedge issues where none previously existed. They can crank up the posturing and unscrupulous attacks. It is a perfect storm; these are important issues, but they are also unmeasurable and many of us have no direct knowledge. The political parties use them to their advantage, they create problems where they do not exist and pose when they have no basis for doing so. Partisan hacks attack each other, and opinions fly fast and fierce. And, most importantly, there is no objective way anyone can prove the other people wrong. It isn’t a matter of showing that 2 + 2 do not equal five, or pointing out where Iceland is.
However, within Russell’s pearl of wisdom is not only a prediction, but also a possible remedy. We need to create an objective metric so that we can establish what the facts really are. Lets take the military as an example. In peacetime (and sometimes in wartime), there is seemingly no metric against which we can judge how our military is positioned. That is, except by how much we spend on it. This has recently been exemplified both in Australia as well as America. With massive automatic defence cuts looming, American politicians have been going hyper in order to prove how pro military they are. Mitt Romney especially has pledged not to cut anything from the military, and has hinted at increasing spending along with starting a few more wars. Meanwhile, with the Australian Government slashing the defence budget in order to achieve their promised surplus, the Opposition has also been going wild claiming that the Government are weakening Australia’s defence and putting the country’s security in jeopardy. Like Romney, the Coalition also pledges not to cut anything, and is hinting at spending more. In both cases the posturing is built around spending more. It isn’t about increasing tangible defence capabilities. It isn’t about achieving the greatest security for the least cost. It isn’t about stopping the cold-war era arms race. It is about spending.
But, one has to wonder, is spending the only metric on which defence can be judged? Is the only way to have this debate in the form of a race to spend the most? Why are country’s/politicians/political parties judged not on an objective stewardship of the military, but on how much they spend on it? For all we know, the massive amounts of military spending increases that have occurred in the past have gone on buying water coolers or flag poles instead of being spent on weapons and training. Instead of being spent on tangible defence. We must remedy this. We need to come up with some sort of metric on which we can judge these things. As long as many of us remain ignorant and without first hand experience, we need evidence and facts on which we can base our decisions. Once we have an objective metric, then we can start asking questions like how much each extra dollar buys us in terms of safety, or what the point of diminishing returns is. Once we have an objective metric, then we can have a proper debate about whether or not more needs to be spent, whether the money has been spent properly, and how well the military has been managed.
But this shouldn’t be limited to defence. As democracies we need to start coming up with quantifiable ways of judging all intangible government projects. Things like infrastructure, education and even health care; all of these things need to be judged by metrics other than how much we spend on them. Once we have an objective system on which we can judge these issues, then we will have evidence on which we can base our discourse. Like the position of Iceland, we can have debates in which one side is clearly wrong and one side is clearly right. Our political discourse will evolve from a fact starved one, based purely on hyperbole and warrantless opinion, into something just a little bit more intelligent. It won’t matter as much that the majority of us are starved of experience, because we will have proper facts to back us up. So, lets get us some metrics.