Walletgate has proved the truth of the adage about a week in politics, having been almost literally blown off the front pages by events which neither John Howard nor Peter Costello can influence much, if at all.
Its wake has morphed into the usual speculation on nothing much that's actually happening above the surface, either predictable or tendentiously partisan. The most recent discussion has focused on the question of truth and lies in politics, via a poll which finds that a majority believe Costello to be telling the truth but prefer Howard as PM anyway.
This raises the question of the success of political tactics designed to paint Howard as a liar, whose impact Andrew Norton at Catallaxy characterises as follows:
You have to take the good with the bad with politicians as with other people, and fudging things a little is no more than a misdemeanour. The Left’s John Howard Lies campaign fell flat as a result. What matters politically is not so much trust as confidence that a political leader will deliver better than his rivals on key issues. On that count, for the meantime at least, Howard is ahead.
I disagree with Norton's claim that Howard has been "fudging things a little". It's a lot more serious than that. But I agree with him on the main thrust of the argument, and think that those like Tim Dunlop at Road to Surfdom, who continue to analyse the Liberal woes through the prism of truth or lies, miss the political point. Dunlop writes:
It’s an interesting state of affairs, and as I suggested below, it is weird to think we, allegedly, accept a level of dishonesty from the prime minister that we wouldn’t accept from a shop assistant or a real estate agent or anyone else we deal with in a relationship of trust.
Dunlop subsequently argues that in fact we don't accept lies, but Howard muddies the waters by maintaining deniability. The great German sociologist Max Weber, after specifically addressing the question of whether truth telling as an absolute duty has a place in a political ethics, argues for a political ethics not of purity, but of conviction and responsibility.
I am far from arguing John Howard is Weber's conviction politician. And it's clear by his repeated conduct he attempts to evade or escape responsibility.
But I think we need to be clear about the role of truth and ethics in politics. There are many politicians we might not choose to have as a friend (or thinking of Bill Clinton here, as a spouse). There are many who may not stick as closely to a "deal" as we would hope those with whom we have a commercial relationship adhere to contracts. But politics is an affair of force and contingency. It lacks the predictability of commercial transactions, and it rests on a different basis from personal relations.
Its goal is to achieve public ends. It's by that, and their responsibility for their actions, that politicians should be judged. And provided they operate within the law, it's the electorate who judge.
There's sort of a Kantian universe of noble souls where law and honour rule politics. There's a need for law and honour but, for instance, expecting that UN resolutions will be unproblematically heeded by states if not backed up by force is an exercise in noble naivety. The real world is otherwise, and it should be otherwise, because we should judge politicians not by their personal character but what they achieve for the public.
Expecting that there will be a standard of truth or justice that will fundamentally decide between Weber's "warring gods" is really an exercise in misplaced hope. It's right and proper that there be vigorous disagreement over ends in politics. Otherwise we don't have democracy. We might feel morally more comfortable if all was pure, but we wouldn't have the contest of ideas, and the inevitable contest of force that ought to be played within rules, but still needs to take place.
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