The Role of Politicians and Trading Conscience beneath the Social Contract
Posted on December 10th, 2016

Dr. Chandana Jayalath

I consider imperative to address the role of politicians a while. Politicians should try to maximize public welfare. That’s no doubt true for many politicians and in many cases—may be even most, depending on the context, as most politicians could make more money and have fewer hassles in the private sector. And although it’s hard to point to cases where a political action is solely undertaken to improve public welfare, it’s not impossible. That is, we can find cases where a political action, voluntarily undertaken, damages the politician’s ability to win an election or maintain power. In those cases we can be fairly confident the motivation is genuine. A paradigmatic example comes from Lyndon Johnson. When he signed the Civil Rights Act, in July 1964, he had been warned that it would cost him the forthcoming election (it turned out not to), and he famously commented at the time, with regard to his party, “We have lost the South for a generation.” A more reasonable explanation is that politicians, like people, have various goals which are occasionally in conflict. But to continue with the metaphor, under what conditions does their objective function change from the cynical one to a more altruistic formulation? In the high-profile cases, it seems to be a matter of normative commitment. If the commitment is very strong, approaching the level of moral belief, politicians will be more willing to incur political costs for it. With commitments that are less entrenched, the trade-offs would loom larger. It seems to me that for the public, there is an incentive to encourage the normative commitments of politicians: we don’t share their concerns about their careers, but we do have an equal investment in societal well-being. The way to encourage normative commitments in general, I would argue, is to minimize the political costs of any individual commitment. So perhaps socially liberal voters should be open to candidates with a few socially conservative views, or fiscally conservative voters should be tolerant of a candidate who has indicated support for an effort to reduce carbon emissions, for example. In practice, this already does happen, often based on the voters’ assessment of a politician’s sincerity.

Nonetheless, it may not be bewildering to say that the problem of squatters was created by politicians after 1956 when they prevented the law enforcement authorities from evicting such squatters and thereby encouraged more people to squat on unoccupied Government land including canal and railway reservations. This generated the squatter settlements where poor people improvised dwellings made from scrap materials using plywood, corrugated metal and sheets of plastic. They did not have sanitation or electricity and water service but over the years many of them managed to get them through the courtesy of the elected politicians. This is bitter truth. The success or failure of the economy is also a key aspect of political debate. Politicians feel that the prevailing approach has been mistaken. More than that, they argue that policies are weak and do not adequately address the concerns of the ordinary voters. Certainly, it is possible to look at economic history as a variant on the old saying; he who pays the piper calls the tune. What determines economic policy? Politicians will tack with the prevailing winds to ensure they stay in office. Economic ideas will be adopted when they are useful to that process. In turn, economists try to grapple with the problems that seem most relevant to the societies in which they live, but those issues are seen through the prism of the political power structure.

The achievement of good governance is possible if there are strong institutions and stable Government policies in the future. Changing policies from time to time is a national sin. Similarly, support of the politicians for establishing good governance is indispensable and bringing in greatest good for the greatest number” of the society according to Lawrence Kohlberg (a US-based Harvard University philosopher). Kohlberg stated that today’s politicians have no ethical responsibility to spend unjustified manner and misappropriate future generations’ tax money and also that it is unethical and unfair to harm the future generations’ economy because politicians have been selected democratically, and entered into a social contract for a specific period of time . According to Kohlberg, during the social contracted period” politicians expect to do what is best for everyone on the whole” and what could all of us in principle agree to”. Therefore, ‘political-contractors’ have no right to violate the principles of good governance even in procurement and to do the greatest harm for the greatest number”. In our topic, the role of professionals (for example the economists in economic issues) is not to support the political campaigns but demystify any value of economic policies, apolitically and futuristically. Unfortunately we experienced two professors in economics talked in media on the same topic of inflation ultimately bringing two different conclusions, one favor to the existing government and the other disfavor, making the public into a bewildering trap.

Before we work out what the Government ought to be doing and how well it is doing it, we need to know what it is doing. It is hard enough for ministers to establish what is going on in their departments. It is impossible for members of the public, yet the public has a double right to this information. First, it is paying for the Government. Second, the Government ought to be working to improve the quality of public life. Given the amount people pay in tax, they are surely entitled to an outstanding health service and excellent education and a corrupt free service delivery. None of these are unreasonable demands, as long as the money is sensibly spent. Transparency is all about scrutiny. It will help ministers to work out what ought to be done better. It will help the voters to decide how their politicians could improve their performance. It will also help good officials to do their best and become publicly spirited. It may well be that transparency helps voters to realize how difficult governing is, and how hard many public servants work on the public’s behalf. It may even be that the day will eventually come when the taxpayer feels that a rupee spent on his behalf by the Government brings him the same value for money as same as the rupee he spends for himself. The truth is precious, however, it is sad that there are so many in our society who have lost respect for it; people who have traded in their conscience and their soul for temporary financial comfort while sacrificing the stability and balance of the rest of the country in the process.


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