Friday, May 30, 2014

Love in a time of politics? Let's first define 'What is politics?'

My training is in political science, a field which -- like economics -- takes a rather cynical view of this highly complex thing called human nature (even as it ponders the pursuit of the good life). A strong refrain in political science has been the need for "checks and balances". That was what mentors like Professor Chan Heng Chee taught students like me. I was somewhat bemused by her recent commentary article in ST with the headline/sub-heading...

It's time for love in politics
The debate about Singapore's population growth needs more than just good arguments. As citizens feel marginalised in their own home, they need a dose of empathy -- even love -- from political leaders

Prof Chan concluded thus:

We are into a phase of politics beyond the transactional, into the politics of empathy and individual worth. Apart from expecting goods and services, voters expect to be valued as individuals. Responding to this is not the same thing as going soft. It is the politics of the day.

That article apparently inspired ST's Opinion Editor to gush forth with this piece...

The four-letter word at the heart of politics

Her own conclusion was this:

I think Prof Chan is as right today as she was in the 1970s when she berated the PAP for being too dominant, in arguing that it’s time for a politics of empathy and self-worth.

In the 2010s, people want not just good policies from politicians who fix problems. They want good policies, yes, but from politicians who care.

But can the PAP change its DNA from being wonky leaders, to being folksy ones who can love, embrace and endear themselves to voters?

Whatever the outcome, one can’t fault the PAP for not trying.

It did not take long before a critic jumped in:

Love in politics? Nah, I'll pass


What are the rest of us to make of all this, and of all the other adjectival politics (constructive, destructive, money, racial, etc, etc) that are being spewed forth in Parliament and in the mainstream media? We need to start with the most basic question: "What is politics?"

As I said, I trained as a political scientist and I know of two classic definitions which have stood the test of time. I shall let this blogpost below, which I found -- and endorse -- do the job of tackling the question...

What Is Politics?

It is a very easy-to-follow commentary. One should at least consider the points below that the writer made:
In an attempt to pin down what all of us political scientists are collectively about – if we are in fact collectively about anything – two definitions of politics have been proffered that vie for supremacy in the discipline.

One is by David Easton, who said that politics is “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Easton’s definition is widely accepted, but I dislike it for two reasons, one pragmatic and the other conceptual. My pragmatic objection is that I get hung up on the word “values.”

I’m not sure just how far that extends, and since I take a very broad definition to that word, I remain uncertain that my definition of values would actually fit Easton’s definition of politics. Is he referring to just collective values, or to personal values as well? Is there such a thing as collective values? Is he referring to material values? Or both material and non-material? I just think the use of the word “values” opens up too many questions for the definition to be very functional.

My conceptual objection is in the word “authoritative.” I think it’s too restrictive. “Authoritative” implies “official,” which is not always the case. At any rate, politics certainly existed before humans developed “official” authority, or formal authoritative institutions. Well, to be fair, that criticism requires reliance on a different definition of politics, but let me reword it to say that those behaviors that we frequently consider political pre-date the invention of formal authoritative social institutions.

The other definition that commands allegiance is [Harold] Lasswell’s “who gets what, when, and how.”

From my perspective, this is the only good definition of politics, and its value is in its broadness. There is a necessary but unstated assumption within it, though, and that assumption is “when there are two or more people.”

In a hypothetical state of nature where I am all alone, my choice to climb a tree to pick apples is not a political decision. But if you are also present, and the options that exist are to work together to pick the apples, then figure out how to divide them, or to try to pick the apples surreptitiously, or to try to exert sole despotic dominion over the apples and keep the other away–then we have politics.

To take a literary example, when Robinson Crusoe was alone on the island there was no politics, but as soon as “Friday” appeared, everything became political.

There you are! Politics 101, so well put. So, when someone argues that there must be "constructive politics", that's a motherhood statement! Who in his or her right mind -- apart from those who want to overthrow the present political arrangement -- will want to engage in destructive politics?

The incumbent government can accuse the opposition of politicking, and vice versa. That is to be expected and is indeed part of the continuing process of politics and, ultimately, of getting the mandate to allocate scarce resources.

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