On virtue signaling and gridlock in democratic governments.
“Gridlock is a part of any democracy, and a very important part,” the former senator Alan Simpson told Ellen Barry of The New York Times according to an article in today’s paper. “It forces compromise. You have to force it sometimes.” Mr. Simpson’s comment was apropos of Ms. Barry’s claim that American-style gridlock has now been imported into Britain and was somehow the cause of the current parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. Neither Mr. Simpson, who has been out of Washington for nearly a decade and out of the Senate for nearly a quarter century, nor Ms. Barry seems to have noticed that, in Britain’s case, Parliament’s paralysis is precisely not forcing compromise. In fact, it is caused by refusal on all sides to compromise. Perhaps this should suggest to us that, in contemporary democracies, gridlock is not a bug but a feature.
Why should that be? I think it is because of the political fashion on both sides of the Atlantic for legislators to turn over the hard and controversial work of lawmaking to unelected bureaucrats and judges in order to free themselves for the more congenial task of feckless virtue signaling. What we are seeing in Britain today is the spread of this paralyzing disease from the legislature to the executive—the branch of government that is ostensibly in charge of getting things done. David Aaronovitch notes in today’s Times of London the latest repetition by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, of her much-repeated mantra that “no-deal is better than a bad deal”—to which she now adds the proviso: “but I want to leave with a good deal”—and comments that “at no point did it seem to occur to the prime minister that one of her jobs might be to persuade anyone of anything. It was enough that the girl stood coughing on the burning deck, whence all but she had fled.”
The political chaos over Brexit in the United Kingdom is a perfect example of what happens when “principles” take the reins in politics: nothing gets done, but everybody gets to make a bid for applause by making a parade of his or her ever-loving principles. This is where virtue signaling ends: in the death not only of democracy but of the power of democratic governments to act at all. To adapt Emerson, the louder someone talks of his principles, the faster we must abandon any hope of getting anything done by democratic means. Just look at the London Daily Telegraph’s headline to an article by Michael Fabricant, M.P., in yesterday’s paper: “Why I took the tough decision to vote down the PM’s Brexit deal.”
The political chaos over Brexit in the United Kingdom is a perfect example of what happens when “principles” take the reins in politics: nothing gets done, but everybody gets to make a bid for applause by making a parade of his or her ever-loving principles.
I don’t wish to be too hard on Mr. Fabricant, who probably didn’t write the headline and who has persuasive reasons for refusing to support a government by members of his own party that he was elected to support, but I wonder how many readers thought as I did: why on earth should he—or, indeed, anyone else—think people are at all likely to care why he took the “tough” decision? His high-minded principles are of little interest compared to the care the public must feel about the political chaos caused by Mrs. May’s deal’s defeat, the practical effect of which will be to delay, perhaps indefinitely, Britain’s exit from the European Union that the people voted for in 2016.
Fiat justitia, ruat caelum may sound like a fine principle in the abstract, but it is merely ridiculous when applied to most matters of practical politics—which Brexit is in the end, no matter how momentous. “Principles” in politics are valuable only when limited and understated, if not entirely unspoken. When they become public, let alone loudly advertised, it is almost always for self-aggrandizement by virtue signaling or else an excuse for not doing something that badly needs to be done. Or, most likely, both. The media, of course, are all in favor of such posturing, as the only thing they like better than loudly announced “principles” is the discovery that someone they dislike may not have lived up to his. Or theirs. And in this case such principles mesh very nicely with the British media’s presentation of the matter—“not,” as Mark Steyn writes, “as a conscious subversion of Brexit but as prudent sober voices of restraint stepping in to save the nation from the chaos engendered by the people’s stupidity.” Remind you of anything?
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