Realistic politics on TV eschews romantic approach, spotlights self-interest
Sir Antony Jay was in the obituaries a few weeks ago, which unfortunately prompted me to reflect not on how much I enjoyed his work, but on how underappreciated that work was.
Jay was co-creator of the BBC comedy Yes, Minister, which follows a fictional Member of Parliament and his counterpart in the civil service. The show was notable for its nonpartisan approach to political satire. It wasn’t (as is more typical) about how the smart/good party was caught up in a struggle against the stupid/evil party—it was about how the institutional arrangements the various participants found themselves in led to self-aggrandizing decision-making. (In economics and political philosophy, this is known as the “public choice” model.)
The more romantic approach to portraying politics in fiction is to portray the protagonist as a fundamentally decent person trying to promote justice and do good work, while opposed by corrupt and self-interested agents. (Some people criticized the popular NBC series The West Wing for this.) At the other pole is the approach to storytelling where the protagonist himself is the venal one, as in the BBC series House of Cards and its American counterpart of the same name.
Yes, Minister (and its follow-up, Yes, Prime Minister) avoids both extremes. The protagonists are neither overly idealistic do-gooders nor vicious manipulators. But what they are is self-interested.
The elected officials want to get re-elected, and the appointed civil servants want to advance in the civil service bureaucracy.
Both have a secondary goal of wanting to increase the scope of their authority, provided that it’s not in conflict with the primary goal. This can occasionally lead to socially beneficial outcomes, although public choice theory predicts that more often it won’t. For the most part, the elected officials and the bureaucrats are neither trying to “do good” nor trying to “do evil,” they’re simply trying to make their lives easier and advance their careers.
Why, for example, would a politician who for years argued that only heterosexual couples should be allowed to marry, turn around and announce that justice requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry? It’s possible that the politician spent years studying the issue, both the relevant legal precedents and the large philosophical literature on the subject.
But as in metaphysics, the simpler explanation is the one that we ought to prefer, absent a compelling reason not to, and another possibility is that the politician has noticed that public opinion on the matter has shifted. If you think most of your constituents oppose same-sex marriage, it’s easiest for you to oppose it. If you think that most of your constituents support it, however, then your advantage clearly lies in supporting it. This explanation fits the facts (polls do show this change in public sentiment), and doesn’t require us to believe weird things about the politician (spent hours studying philosophy, used to be evil, is now evil, etc.).
What idealists decry as “flip-flopping” on an issue can thus be understood as consistent and understandable self-preservation.
Interestingly, elected officials and bureaucrats who really do see themselves as fighting for justice may act in similar ways without even realizing it. “Go along to get along” can be rationalized as a pragmatic approach to dealing with people you think as morally less pure than yourself but necessary for accomplishing your goals. What is inescapable is the way the incentives created by the institutional structures motivate action. If your constituent Jane Doe writes you a letter about some issue, and no one else says anything, then you have some incentive to act as that constituent suggests.
But if your biggest campaign contributors have already made it clear that they want the opposite of what Jane thinks, your incentive is to ignore Jane. After all, if you were removed from office, you wouldn’t be able to work for good anymore! This makes it sound as though no one can influence policy to change for the better, but what it actually means is that you can have a better influence on policy by working towards influencing regular people in their views, effecting general shifts in public opinion. The other would be to push for reductions of the scope of politicians’ and bureaucrats’ authority, which seems like a tall order, but which conceivably could be framed in terms of their self-interest (fewer things to get in trouble about).
In a way, then, public-choice-informed shows like Yes, Minister are even more cynical than shows like House of Cards because they presuppose neither great virtue of character nor great vice. Francis Urquhart (and his American counterpart Francis Underwood) are epic anti-heroes, detestable but engaging, in the way world-conquering supervillains are. But the reality is far less dramatic—ordinary people trying to make their jobs easier and more lucrative.
Antony Jay understood this well enough to make sophisticated comedy out of it. It would be nice if more people understood it well enough to stop romanticizing politics.
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