Friday, March 24, 2017

Keep Calm and Carry On

Here's a thought I have been mulling in the wake of the terrorist murders in London the other day. I think the following is true: one should never change one's voting habits in light of terrorism. And, in the present context, I think that means: despite the fact that they often seem to gain electorally from terrorism, one should not in fact reward the far right with votes or support in other forms in light of terrorism. Here's my thinking.

Let's assume that politicians are largely short sighted and self interested. That is to say, they want power, and they want it now, and it is the striving of (immediate) power after power that governs their actions. In a broadly democratic system how does one get this power? Well, by convincing the population to vote for you or support you in other means. Suppose, then, it becomes apparent that the way for you to gain support is for people to be constantly afraid of terrorist attacks, for there to be the odd random murder, or even mass murder -- will a politician whose route to power is via such things be well incentivised to actually stop them occurring should they gain power?

Some thought experiments to back this up: does anybody suppose that it would be bad for Trump if there were to be a high profile attack from Islamist terrorists? It would surely be great for him, and he knows it. In light of that, do we really trust him to do things that will make terrorism less rather than more likely? Or, at least, if ever there is a choice between looking tough and making Islamic terrorism less likely -- does anybody suppose even for a moment that he would choose to make Islamic terrorism less likely at the expense of looking tough? It's scarce worth even considering, so obvious is it where his incentives lie. Likewise, a more fantastical thought experiment: suppose there were a button that Marine Le Pen could press that would make terrorism stop tomorrow, and would render the public at ease and confident in this regard; if her choice were to remain secret, who seriously thinks she would press that button? It would be a disaster for her! And here's one from real life -- right wing factions in the Israeli government tried to have calls to prayer silenced; I think it is just obvious that this is because i ) doing so would provoke a violent reaction, and ii ) the right stands to gain where there is violence and tension.

It thus strikes me as important that we do not empower people on the basis of terrorism. If we do that, we just give our leaders every reason to look the other way in the face of terrorist threats as far as they can, or even provoke such threats where possible. Such is their route to power -- and, as noted, I work with the assumption that politicians want power. We have to, as the folk saying from my homeland goes, keep calm and carry on.

One might say: does this not prove too much? Isn't this effectively an argument never to change your vote in response to social problems because then it empowers people incentivised to perpetuate the problem? To which I have two replies. First, I don't think that is proving too much! We should think seriously about the real incentives of the government, and we should take seriously the very real problems with representative democracy. We ought consider more direct forms of democracy. Second, I think terrorism might be different from other social problems. The nature of the threat is that a lot of what must be done to deal with it is subtle or secretive -- spies infiltrating cells, long term outreach and development in relevant communities, subtle social social changes in what kind of things are considered appropriate, etc. It will generally be especially hard for us to keep track of whether or not the government is even trying to do these things, let alone whether or not they are doing it effectively.  We're peculiarly vulnerable to being manipulated here.

London has faced down threats far worse than this in the past. The city has seen invaders come and go, has been burnt to the ground and rebuilt, has had plagues decimate its population. It goes on.  We weren't cowed by the IRA, the full might of the Luftwaffe didn't break us. We go on. I am confident that the city, the people, of London will do what must be done, and the delusional fascists of Islamic terrorism are bound to lose.

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