Introduction to My Approach to Politics

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I've never had a humble opinion. If you've got an opinion, why be humble about it?
Joan Baez (the singer)

[The material on this page is a draft of most of the first chapter of a proposed book discussing political principles and their application to political/government institutions and policies. Feedback is welcomed via my contact page. Other parts of the text may possibly be made available from time to time as they are provisionally completed.]

Contents of this introduction:-

  1. Purpose
  2. Axioms
  3. Origins of the axioms
  4. Justification for axioms
  5. Political Use of Feedback Control Systems
  6. Value of a human life
  7. Browser compatibility statement
  8. Main links to other pages on this site


  1. Purpose

    Government is the hub around which the wheel of society rotates. In the majority of countries today, not just a hub with a bearing, but in many respects it provides the driving force to ensure that the society remains a vital living thing, rather than stagnating. This is a statement which many will dispute, but it seems to me that it is a fair description of what happens in the industrialised countries of today (but not in all countries or at all times in the past - I am not saying it is an inherent part of man's nature, only that it is how we live today in Europe, North America, etc.). Furthermore, it is a growing trend in the few countries for which it is not fully true today. Note that I do not say "elected government" nor "official government"; in so far as other organisations, such as, for example, multi-national corporations, constrain or control "official governments", then they themselves become a part of the government; I shall have more to say on that particular development later.

    The object of this text is to review the principles which should, to achieve what I and many others would regard as a truly civilised society, govern both the structure and functions of government. To do so I have drawn on the work of many philosophers, political theorists and active politicians, ancient, recent and currently active, but have attempted to draw together numerous threads to produce a coherent whole. To what extent I have succeeded is for the reader to judge. Inevitably some areas are discussed in greater depth and with greater insight than others, reflecting my own limitations both of knowledge and of interest and, in certain instances, my judgement of the relative importance of the topics.

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau begins Book 1 of his The Social Contract with the words "My purpose is to consider if, in political society, there can be any legitimate and sure principle of government, taking men as they are and laws as they might be". I am starting from the assumption that there can be such principles and going on to reach conclusions as to what they are and what the laws based on them should be.

    The philosopher Crane Brinton wrote (English Political Thought in the 19th Century): "Scientists - ..... the best of them - have always held their laws as at best hypotheses subject to constant modification. Political theorists, and especially political theorists in action, like Robespierre, have tended to hold their conclusions as dogmas." I was trained as a scientist, and try to take the scientific approach to political issues, but it must be recognised that politics is more in the nature of an applied science than a pure one. The mechanical engineer has clearly stated and agreed goals; he is then able to apply the fruits of centuries of good research into the pure sciences of physics and chemistry to find a means of achieving those goals. In politics we have the greatest difficulty in agreeing what the goals should be, a process not helped by the difficulty most people active in the field have in distinguishing between goals and means. Once goals have been determined (to suit one person at least!) the scientific knowledge available to apply to the problem is that of psychology and of economics, both of which are today in much the same state of advancement that physics was before the work of Isaac Newton. The importance of Brinton's message can hardly be overstated.

  2. Axioms

    Throughout I have attempted to take as axiomatic as little as possible (i.e. I have minimised the number of goals, and so, I hope, the extent of the need for the basic science which may be needed to achieve them.), preferring to deduce one item from another, so as to achieve the stated goal of coherence. Nevertheless, some axioms are unavoidable, so I attempt to set these out here where they can be clearly seen and evaluated on their own merits; in so doing I hope to detach the statements of political policy, etc. in the main body of the text from the subjective and therefore frequently emotionally prejudiced judgements inherent in the statement of these axioms.

    1. I believe, with John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859), that each being should be free to do whatever he wishes in so far as this does not impinge directly on the freedom or welfare of others, and this consideration should at all times be paramount.
    2. I believe that it is the duty of a civilised society to so organise and conduct itself that the strong are constrained to observe the above principle in their dealings with the weak.
    3. I believe it is the further duty of a civilised society to provide protection and support to those unable to provide for themselves the necessary conditions for a healthy and pleasant life, in so far as this is possible.

    In stating the above axioms I have not explicitly referred to human beings, but merely to "beings", since, like many people, I do not regard the infliction of unnecessary suffering on any animal as justifiable. On the other hand, if no differentiation is made between humans and others, then the axioms imply that a smallpox bacterium is as important as a human. There is an extreme group of people who do believe that disease epidemics should be allowed to spread unchecked as a natural control on human population, which in excess tends to destroy the whole planet, but this is not a view I, or many other people, can accept; as (relatively) rational beings we should be able to control our population without the undeserved suffering of individuals that disease epidemics necessarily involve. The best compromise that I have so far been able to devise is to modify the axioms to the extent that any being should receive consideration to the extent that it can appreciate the harm or good being done to it. Thus the smallpox (and other) bacteria receive no consideration, and humans the maximum. The extreme difficulty of communicating with other species creates obvious practical difficulties in applying this approach, but use of the best scientific knowledge available, coupled with commonsense, can be expected to resolve the difficulties in most cases.

    Unfortunately, even when we are concerned only with humans, life is not always so simple. All too frequently a decision must be made on the relative merits of differing policies where one must weigh the competing claims of, for example, a small but significant benefit for an enormous number as against an almost overwhelming benefit (or absence of harm) to a very small number. Assuming the benefits and disadvantages to those concerned can be measured, which is often, with difficulty, the case, then the utilitarian approach was that the decision should favour the greatest good of the greatest number - in other words, multiply the benefit by the number receiving it to obtain some sort of index of merit for each possible decision. This is not an approach I can accept, although the actual calculation may be helpful. The problem as I see it with this approach is that we are not dealing with what a mathematician would call linear variables. It is simply not true that one unit of happiness each for three people is equivalent to three units for one person, still less that a unit of a given benefit leads to the same number of units of happiness for all the beneficiaries (quite apart from the philosophical problems of defining units of happiness!).

    To take a simple example, a proposed new road may reduce the time for a certain journey by an hour for each of two people who make the journey once per day Monday to Friday. Hence each gains five hours per week. Superficially, they benefit equally from the proposed road. If we look deeper, however, we are quite likely to find that whereas one will as a result spend a greater period of time alone in a miserable flat where he suffers considerable boredom, and hence gains little if any real benefit, the other may be enabled to attend some activity from which he gains massive benefits (e.g. he may arrive home early enough to attend a college course leading to a qualification and later greatly increased salary or greatly enriched life). For one the five hours do no good at all, while to the other they are literally worth a fortune.

    I therefore feel it is necessary to take a less simplistic and mechanical approach. My inclination is towards the view that in disputes of this kind the status quo should be maintained until all the parties affected are in agreement. This would mean, for example, that in the case of a motorway project no compulsory purchase orders would be permitted, all land having to be obtained by negotiation. This again is unfortunately too simple to be practical, since it would enable unscrupulous people to demand unreasonable sums for their land, far in excess of its true value to them. A more pragmatic approach is therefore unavoidable, although the principle of trying to make compensation equivalent to the true loss to the individual concerned should always apply.

    The third axiom will, I know, be an area of contention for many on the grounds that it amounts, if taken more than a very little way, to an invitation to laziness by those inclined to exploit the system (although with increasing automation and leisure this may become an advantage in itself!). They have a point, but few, I think, would wish to remove the axiom entirely. It amounts to the main difference, in my view, between a civilised society and that of (most) wild animals. All benefit from the sense of security it provides, replacing the fear that illness or accident will lead to poverty or even death from starvation. Just where the line should be drawn between feather-bedding on the one hand and the complete callousness of the law of the jungle on the other is a matter to be determined again on somewhat pragmatic grounds, although it should be said that I believe that so far as possible (and there are, unfortunately, severe limits to what is possible) everyone should be protected from misfortunes which are no fault of their own.

  3. Origins of the axioms

    The three axioms above are in fact derived from a single root. While I suppose it would be possible to confine myself to just this root as the sole axiom, it is so general in nature that I do not believe it would be helpful to do so. Nevertheless, it is probably helpful to state what it is, since it provides in large part, perhaps entirely, the justification for the axioms as stated.

    It seems to me to be self-evident (and that is perhaps a good definition of a true axiom) that the purpose of government should be to maximise the happiness or contentment of people in general (ideally the entire human race). I am deliberately avoiding a precise definition of what I mean by happiness or contentment here, primarily because I do not believe it can be done in a generally acceptable way, but also because many books have been written attempting to define it by philosophers from Aristotle to the present day. I will, however, devote a few words to discussion of what it requires, because I think by doing so it will help to show the derivation of the axioms as stated.

    First, I think it is important to realise that there are two quite different aspects, the negative and positive aspects. This has been well described, and shown by careful experiments, by Frederick Herzberg (Work and the Nature of Man) in his researches into what gave job satisfaction in various working environments. He showed that the factors that led to dissatisfaction were quite different from those that led to satisfaction. Dissatisfaction was caused by the lack of those things which met basic needs, such as food, warmth, absence of pain, basic security, etc. He referred to such things as hygiene or maintenance factors. Positive satisfaction, in contrast, came from such things as a feeling of achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement, etc., which he called motivators (because in the work context they motivated people to work better). These motivating factors only came into play once the hygiene factors had been satisfied.

    Following this line of reasoning into the wider realm of life as a whole, and the impact on it of government actions, the first aim should be to identify and then attempt to satisfy the relevant hygiene factors, and as a lower priority to provide for the motivating factors to improve people's satisfaction with their lives.

    It has been shown repeatedly throughout history, in societies of all kinds, that men value freedom above all else, and are often prepared to risk their lives in its attainment. It follows that the first of the hygiene factors is to ensure that people are not unduly restrained from doing what they choose to do. This is the main basis for my first axiom.

    The remaining two axioms are intended to cover the other hygiene factors, ensuring adequate food, shelter, mobility, physical health and comfort, meeting the need to feel secure, etc.

    In the development of detailed policies I have occasionally strayed a little beyond this, in attempting to add a little in the direction of the positive factors, by such means as advocating the provision of education in topics having that objective, but this is always seen as a lower priority than that of meeting the basic needs. Generally the provision of motivating factors falls outside the realm of government, except in a few restricted fields, and I have therefore felt it better omitted from my main axioms in the interests of simplicity. Providing for the more important hygiene factors is quite difficult enough! I have, however, included a few items under this heading in Part 5: Promotion of happiness & fulfilment of this work (not currently included in this draft).

  4. Justification for axioms (especially the third)

    The first axiom is considered at great length by Mill in the work referred to, and I do not propose to spend time trying, probably in vain, to improve on it. For me, the only legitimate purpose of laws and of social approbation outside the law, is to bring about the objects of the other two axioms, leaving this one to be self-evident, fundamental and paramount over all other considerations. A similar point is made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Lettres écrites de la montagne, Letter 8, Pléiade, vol 3, pages 841-2, where he emphasises that true freedom necessarily involves obedience to the law protecting the freedoms of others.

    The second axiom is probably the most universally accepted in theory, if not always in all aspects of practice. Few would contend that thugs should be free to rob, injure and murder honest citizens without restraint of law, even though it is common to find the principle resisted when the economic interests of powerful people or organisations are limited as a result of it.

    I suppose it is very roughly true to say that my third axiom is what distinguishes someone of generally left wing views from a right winger, although that (and the terms right winger and left winger themselves) are gross over-simplifications of what is a very complex issue. In part I see it as an aspect of the cooperation between individuals to overcome enemies and other problems which has contributed so much to the success of the human race as a species, recognising that it is more efficient to cooperate than to fight - fighting wastes resources, including time and energy that could be used for more useful purposes.

    The axiom, of course, goes much further than this in saying the weak should be protected and the unfortunate compensated. One prime reason for this is that if people know they will be taken care of if they suffer from illness or bad luck, then they will in most cases be under considerably less mental stress (both conscious and subconscious) than would otherwise be the case, which in itself contributes directly to greater happiness and indirectly to fewer accidents and greater efficiency in all activities. It also makes sense from a purely economic viewpoint to aid the recovery, or faster recovery, of those suffering curable diseases, and to mitigate handicaps, so as to maximise the potential contribution to society from the sufferers. Provision of such help also enables the family of the sufferer to continue with their own lives to a much greater extent than would otherwise be possible, as well as also partially (at least) relieving their stress brought about by the problems of a loved one. Another indirect but important benefit to society as a whole is that this will ensure lower levels of poverty, for both the sufferer and his relatives (especially but not only dependants), which has a known close relationship to levels of crime.

    I should make it clear that what I am saying is that a civilised society will ensure these things are done, not necessarily that the state should undertake to do them itself. The decision as to means is entirely separate, and is likely to differ according to the nature of the action required and on the traditions and culture of the particular society involved.

    Consideration is needed of the extent to which a citizen should be obliged to comply with the requirements of a society (i.e. obey the laws) when he is not free to opt out of the system - should not any contract, including that between an individual and a state offering protection and various other services in return for the observance of reasonable laws in the interests of other members, be voluntarily entered into by both sides? This is discussed at length by Rousseau (The Social Contract), but I do not find his arguments convincing, mainly because he seems to put far too much emphasis on what he calls "the general will", by definition being always right and just, but with no satisfactory (to my mind) method of determining what it is.

  5. Political Use of Feedback Control Systems

    Feedback control systems are ubiquitous in almost all aspects of modern, and not so modern, life, but are rarely recognised as such, let alone understood, outside the realm of complex engineering systems. This is extremely unfortunate, because this ignorance all too often leads to important failures, in political systems as much as any. The purpose of this little section is not to explain the full detail of such systems (if you want to read about that, there are many good textbooks available, but, unless your knowledge of mathematics includes familiarity with the techniques for solving differential equations, the use of Fourier transforms and the like, I would not recommend it). What I do want to do here is explain what feedback control systems are, to show how they are relevant in a political context, and to draw attention to some of the dangers which lay in wait for those who attempt to implement control systems without the advice of those who do have the necessary understanding. The magnitude of such failures can at times be spectacular! I shall refer back to this section in other parts of this work where it is relevant.

    Let me first explain what I mean by a feedback control system by using a simple example of one with which most people are familar. It is common practice to control the temperature of a room by using a radiator connected to a remote boiler by pipework, with a thermostatically controlled valve attached to the radiator. You can set the desired room temperature by turning the knob on the valve to the level required. Although it may look like (a rather large) one, the valve is not like a simple tap, but contains a device for measuring the room temperature. Usually by some mechanical method, it compares the measured temperature with that which you set by turning the knob. When the measured temperature drops below that required, the device opens the valve to allow more hot water into the radiator so as to warm the room. When the room temperature exceeds that required, the reverse happens and the valve is closed a little to reduce the flow of hot water. This is illustrated in the diagram below:-

    The diagram is necessarily very simplified, but it serves to show the main points of any feedback control system. The capital letters are used to give the general names of the components. The main elements are:

    • An input signal (in this case, the manual temperature setting)
    • A comparison of the input with the feedback (the thermostat)
    • A control signal based on the difference between the input signal and the feedback (the flow of hot water to the radiator and hence heat to the room)
    • A process (the room itself, which absorbs the heat, resulting in a rise in temperature)
    • A feedback signal derived from the system output (the room temperature, as measured by the thermostat)

    Exactly the same sort of system occurs when a company sets a budget for its expenditure on stationery and uses it to control the actual spend. In this case the budget is the input signal, the actual expenditure is the output, the comparison is done by a manager reading a management accounting report showing the deviation from budget, and the control signal is his instruction to cut down on the use of paperclips or whatever!

    So far this all seems very simple, but there are some complexities which must be mentioned in order to show how, in some systems, dangerous failure can result. The two main complexities are first, that real systems of all kinds necessarily include delays. It takes time before a drop in room temperature results in an increased flow of hot water to the radiator, and more time before this results in an increase in room temperature. Second, it is necessary to decide at some point in the design just how big a control signal should be produced in response to a given discrepancy between the input signal and the feedback signal - i.e., in this case, how much more hot water should be allowed through per degree drop in room temperature? This decision is built into the design of the thermostatic valve. If the response is excessive, and the delays in the system too long, the system can go into unstable oscillations as the valve responds too much and too late, causing fluctuations in the room temperature to get larger and larger until some external factor (such as the maximum capacity of the radiator) limits the swings. The wild boom and bust economic cycles which are experienced from time to time are examples of exactly this happening in the political/economic system as finance ministers respond too late and too much to changes in inflation, industrial growth and unemployment levels. The same sort of error (which can be caused by component failure in complex engineering systems) in the systems controlling a nuclear power station can result in the kind of disasters which happened not so long ago at Chernobyl in Ukraine and Three Mile Island in USA.

    Complex mechanisms have been developed to enable feedback control systems to respond quickly and accurately to varying and sometimes unpredictable variations in external conditions while avoiding loss of control, but are mainly used in engineering systems such as continuous process production (e.g. of fluid chemicals), electricity generation and the guidance of rockets and missiles. This is a very specialised area requiring the application of post-graduate mathematics for reliable design, and is desperately needed also in the design of business and political systems at all levels.

    Not all the problems encountered with feedback control in political systems are of this technical nature. All too commonly the problem lies in a poor choice of which parameter to measure in order to achieve the desired result. One real-life example in an engineering system (which in this case was realised and corrected while the system was still only a design on paper) occurred in the guidance system of a whole class of early anti-aircraft missiles, such as the Thunderbird and Bloodhound systems developed in UK. The idea behind these missiles was that the target (an incoming bomber) was "illuminated" by a ground-based radar, while the missile used a dish antenna to detect the reflected signal from the target. The dish was designed so that it swivelled relative to the missile and was kept pointing at the target all the time. The angle between the direction the dish was pointing (i.e. the direction of the target) and the direction the missile was pointing and travelling was easily measured, and at first sight seemed the obvious control signal. However, except in the rare circumstance that the missile was directly ahead of or directly behind the target, the direction from missile to target would be continuously changing as the target flew across, so this meant the missile would have to continuously change its direction. It would therefore fly on a curved course in order to eventually meet the target. Even worse, because there are inevitable delays involved in causing the missile to turn, it would more often than not miss the target entirely and pass just behind it, and in the process lose sight of it and go out of control. Some fairly simple mathematics showed that by choosing the rate of change of the angle between the missile direction and target direction as the control signal, instead of the angle itself (keeping the angle constant instead of trying to reduce it to zero), the missile would fly on a straight line course to intercept the aircraft, improving efficiency as well as hitting instead of missing the target. [No secrets are being revealed here - such missiles became obsolete long ago with the introduction of aircraft-borne anti-radar missiles to destroy the ground-based illuminating radar transmitter.]

    A real-life political example happened in the UK hospital service. The government decided (rightly) that patients were being kept waiting too long for operations, and set out to rectify this by setting closely monitored and enforced targets which all hospitals were required to meet. Unfortunately the chosen targets were the numbers of people awaiting operations at any time. As a direct result, in many hospitals the average waiting time for operations actually increased, because the targets were met, not by increased efficiency, but by selecting first the patients needing only a short time in the hospital bed, while others, sometimes with more urgent needs, were kept waiting because it was known they they would require a longer hospital stay. This could have been avoided by a little more thought in choosing the targets. Measuring the average waiting time would have been better, but could still lead to distortions by appropriate selection of patients. What should really have been done was to ensure that the selection of which patients to treat next was taken by someone with no interest in meeting the targets, and it would also be necessary to ensure that success rates were monitored to prevent speed targets being met by rushed treatment. This kind of problem is likely to arise whenever people are the subject of the control system, both because of the way people react to such a system and because the selection of parameters to measure is usually (but not always) less obvious in such systems than it is in engineering systems.

    Other aspects to be covered:-
    Control system induced stresses
    Cost of monitoring and comparison compared with cost of benefit
    Unwanted/unexpected side-effects
    Allowance for human factors

  6. Value of a human life

    Although the fact is often overlooked or ignored by those most involved, many day-to-day and long-term policy decisions involve making judgements on the value of human life, either relative to another human life or lives, or in pure monetary terms. It is, for example, only because such a decision is taken that we do not have a 30 miles per hour (or lower) speed limit, rigidly enforced, on all roads; such a limit would undoubtedly save many lives, but at enormous economic cost. The same consideration limits the amount spent on medical research and on the provision of medical services. Other areas concerned with health and safety involve similar decisions, and yet more examples can be found in other areas. The relative value of different individuals comes into question, for example, when deciding which of two (or more) potential recipients should receive a single available heart or kidney transplant.

    It is psychologically much easier to skip over this decision than to take it consciously, and it is also psycholocially easier to take such a decision in a way that condemns to death, not a known and named individual, but a number of unknown people who will be selected more or less randomly by events yet to come, such as the victims of future road accidents. Nevertheless, the decision must in one way or another be taken, and the people who die are just as much human beings with responsibilities and loved ones who will grieve as members of your own immediate family would be, so there is no ethical difference. To avoid facing up to it is to practise escapism and to greatly increase the probability of getting the decision wrong.

    It follows, therefore, that in order to make such decisions in a logical manner, we need a method of putting a monetary value on human life in an explicit way, so that it can be used consciously and consistently to aid such decision-making.

    This is much easier said than done. In the preface to his book Causing Death and Saving Lives John Glover (Fellow and tutor in philosophy at New College, Oxford University), expressing his regret at not including this topic in the book, wrote: "I have read and thought about these questions, but they now seem much more difficult than I expected, and my thinking is still too confused and tentative to include here." I am therefore being ambitious in the extreme in attempting to do so, but I do not see how I can sensibly deal with the main topics of this work otherwise.

    Clearly, this is a large and complex topic, so the argument is developed on a separate page (not currently included in this draft) to prevent this one from becoming too unwieldy.


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