Conservatives are failing the political Turing test – Labour Article
The Turing test was designed by Alan Turing as a way of determining whether a computer has the ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to or indistinguishable from that of a human. The test involves placing the machine behind a screen, feeding it inputs (questions) and analysing the responses. I think we can imagine a similar test to see if a politician is really doing politics or if in fact they are doing something altogether more sinister.
The test can be constructed using John Rawls’ concept of the veil of ignorance. Rawls says that in order to be genuine attempts at achieving justice, political decisions must be made without consideration of the decision maker’s own endowments that they are randomly allocated at birth. This includes one’s intelligence, age, gender, race, family and place of birth. These endowments also include anything that is ‘arbitrary from a moral perspective’, and rightly so: if I’m deciding what the tax rates should be for each income bracket, I shouldn’t let a consideration of my own income meddle with the decision.
The veil of ignorance is not only a position of fairness but a position of politics, since politics is when we put our minds to what society should be like independently of what would benefit one’s self personally. If we do not strive to make decisions from behind the veil then we are no longer doing politics, we are pursuing self-interest.
There is nothing necessarily left-wing about Rawls’ principle. It is related to an eternal thread of moral codes. From the Christian “love thy neighbour as thyself” to Kant’s ‘imagine that your will be made law in a kingdom of ends’. From your parents telling a child to ‘imagine how that made them feel’, to the philosopher Hannah Arendt imploring us to regularly ‘go visiting’.
When placed behind a veil of ignorance people are rationally risk-averse. This is borne out in evidence. In psychological studies, people tend to choose a higher lowest possible income over a higher highest possible income. Rawls derives from this that if everyone approached society from behind a veil of ignorance, they would choose to have some guaranteed minimum income, some basic provision of healthcare and they would choose comprehensive provision of human rights. This is because, in the veiled choice-environment, they are forced to consider that they could occupy the unluckiest position possible.
“A just society is a society that if you knew everything about it you’d be willing to enter it in a random place” – Rawls
Now, consider the following charts and decide which economy you would rather be randomly placed within. Each chart shows the percentage of all wealth owned by each quintile (20%) of individuals.
If you think you would prefer to enter World 2, then you agree with 92% of people. However, as you might have noticed, World 1 is an actual distribution – it is America in 2012. Wealth inequality has only worsened. In 2011, the 400 wealthiest Americans possessed more than half of all Americans combined. In 2020 it is just three Americans that own that amount of wealth. Anyone engaged in politics who defends this distribution or is at least silent on the matter is quite simply not doing politics.
Now let’s imagine the Turing test. We are put in a room. There is a gap in the wall that separates our room from the room next-door in which a politician is sat. Through this gap, we pass questions. The answers to these will determine whether the politician is approaching politics from behind a veil of ignorance or not, and therefore whether they are doing politics or pursuing arbitrary self-interest.
Q: What should we do about the coronavirus pandemic?
Analysis: The politician has not considered that they might themselves be one of the many people who are, or are the relative of someone, who is at risk but does not have the luxury of distancing or shielding.
Q: What should we do about rising inequality?
Analysis: The person has not considered that they may themselves not be as rich or intelligent as they currently are.
Q: What should we do about poverty?
Analysis: While being factually incorrect, this person has also not considered that they themselves might enter society with few resources and that this lack of resources may itself be a barrier to accumulating more resources.
Considering that all of these responses (and many other possible options) are consistent with what contemporary conservatives have actually said, and that each answer clearly demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to make political decisions based on the principle of the veil of ignorance, we can conclude that conservatives have an authenticity problem. They are taking too many decisions based on consideration of facts that are arbitrary from a moral perspective. They are therefore muddling the pursuit of personal enterprise with politics.
To see how this came to be, one needs only to look at the donor list of the Conservative Party and compare it to that of the Labour Party: far more people and far more money. In the last election, conservative funding was triple that of Labour’s funding. Could it be that the partial preferences of the rich few are what determines the content of Conservative thought?
If money could talk for itself, conservatives would be out of work.
Written by Guest Labour Writer, Joseph Cradick
Point of Information
Conservatives treat politics as a business, not a democracy – A Liberal Response
Joseph’s Turing test to evaluate the quality of politics further highlights how choices made by the current government are done without the consideration of the interests of the masses.
Consequently, decisions which damage the doing of politics are made. Whilst this article could benefit from further explanation over what it means to be ‘doing politics’, the implication that politics should be the means to a collective good rather than a pursuit of self-interest is reflected by the reference to Rawls veil of ignorance.
As far as I am aware, Rawls offers the best mechanisms to achieving justice in the political sphere. What is just is what is fair. Fairness should therefore be reflected in the mechanisms and outcomes of political decisions, yet this is typically not the case.
The UK’s political institutions are designed around the concept of democracy. Like politics, this is a contested term. Democracy is best thought of as an ideal and relies on certain conditions being met; such as transparent information and political equality. Conditions that the Conservative government have continually violated, with outright lies to expensive bribes. The Conservative government are not ensuring the conditions for democracy to be practised and thus politics to work.
The manipulation of public consciousness is reflected in voting behaviour. YouGov polls show that people vote for conservatives, not based on their material reality, but on an ideological impression of their identity group. The Conservative Party and many of their voters do indeed have an authenticity problem. Messages sent by the government distort not only the conception of the common good but individuals conceptions of their personal good.
The hunting exception from the ‘rule of six’ is one snapshot example supporting Joseph’s point that Conservative ideology is determined by the preferences of the rich. However, I would go further and argue that the Conservative government has become increasingly part of a larger propaganda system for the economic elite.
Finally, an agreement over what and how politics should work is unnecessary to realise something seriously wrong is occurring in the political sphere. Whilst 230,000 further citizens are on the verge of eviction, Boris Johnson is worried about affording a nanny with his £150,000 salary. How can our representative represent if they are unwilling to even attempt ‘going visiting’?
However is this really an isolated problem for the conservatives? Joseph’s article implies that under perfect theoretical conditions, a democratic system would result in a strong socialist state. Yet the degradation of such has been a cross-party affair. Maybe the economisation of politics is the real problem?
Written by Senior Liberal writer, Abby Milnes
An interesting method, but a flawed conclusion – A Conservative Response
My colleague presents an interesting idea that I struggled to criticise. Mainly because I struggle to criticise the veil of ignorance; I can see the merit of removing oneself from the situation.
However, one cannot and should not completely remove themselves from the equation. It is extremely hard to do so, and it would mean removing values, etc. Plus, MPs have to take the interests of their constituents in with them, as that is who they are representing.
Let’s now look at the flawed answers to the questions.
Firstly, that the UK government prioritised the economy over health. Chris Whitty is not a politician; he is a civil servant. This means he is not bothered by political facts like the economy as much. He looks at the data and makes informed advice on that. When the data changes, so does Whitty’s approach.
That needs to be the government’s approach as well. In fact, just recently extra England wide restrictions were reintroduced, with many people complaining that they go too far. A balanced approach is needed that pays attention to both the economy and lives. This is something that both Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance advocated for in their briefing.
For the second question, Boris does not stress that rising inequality is essential, only that some inequality is. And while we are not in an ideal meritocracy just yet (racism and sexism still exist for example), I believe that a system of meritocracy should exist. Equality of opportunity should be sought after, and people should receive the rewards for taking opportunities. If not, they are not as rewarded.
Some measures are needed to reduce extreme inequality, but it will never be eradicated fully without turning to Communism, which does not work. For example, regional inequality was going to be one of the things addressed in this Parliament, with the promise of levelling up the country. Now, the funds for that are more limited due to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, I believe there will be some measures to address it.
I won’t defend the last answer. While I agree with some inequality as I’ve explained above, saying extreme poverty isn’t a government problem is ignorant.
Finally, to accuse the Conservatives of not doing politics is problematic. Politics has a lot of different definitions according to who you ask. You have clearly shown that the Conservatives don’t fit your definition of politics. However, for the millions of people who voted for them in the last general election, they have a different definition.
Written by Junior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt
I am a graduate of the University of Exeter where I studied politics, philosophy and economics. I used this fantastic opportunity to pursue my deepest interests in the subjects of moral philosophy and political psychology.
Hello, my name is Kieran Burt and I am going into second year at Nottingham Trent University studying Politics and International Relations. I first developed an interest in politics through reading the Dictator’s Handbook by Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, when I was 16, and have furthered my interest by studying politics at A level and now at university.