The Dilemmas of Politics

In principle, politics is a noble profession, as it is dedicated to public service. According to Aristotle, politics relates to negotiation and cooperation for constructing a better community aimed at the common good. However, politicians and their policies and decisions do not typically measure up to expectations. To clarify this, it is important to note that politics involves a broad range of elements, such as politicians and political parties, and their ideologies and policies; government structure and management; and the electorate composed of individuals with a wide range of backgrounds and interests. This is a very complex mix, leading to flawed political decisions not only due to human hubris, but also due to the fundamental nature of human existence in the presence of uncertainty, resulting in the unintended and unanticipated consequences. In addition to both known and unknown variables of this complex mix, there are also external conditions related to society and the natural world, which operate on a probabilistic basis. In other words, politics is permeated with randomness at every level.

Human life and, by extension, political life are imbued with chaos. An important feature of a chaotic system is its strong dependence on initial conditions. Small changes in initial conditions can result in very different outcomes. This is often referred to as the “butterfly effect” that implies that the flutter of butterfly’s wings in one location can result in unpredictable consequences in far away places or later states of the system. This makes long-term predictions very unreliable, if not impossible. This also applies to politics, which deals with a wide range of social issue. The long-term plans and predictions of experts often fail, as small variations in the initial conditions can change the predictions substantially. A recent manifestation of the “butterfly effect” relates to the coronavirus pandemic, caused by a single contagion event in China, with devastating economic and social consequences throughout the world. This is also exacerbated by the tightly interconnected globalized world. It is important to remember that such effects cannot be eliminated or fully controlled, as it is impossible to eliminate chaos and random events. The best one can do is to be prepared for such events.

As politics is an occupation of human beings, it is natural to expect that human nature also plays a crucial role in it. Some of the dilemmas of politics relate to inevitable tensions between altruistic commitments and obligations, on the one hand, and self-interest and ego, on the other.

The dilemmas of politics can be related to three main issues. These are (i) the unfolding complexity of interrelated elements and processes in nature and society, (ii) the inherent flaws in human judgment and organizations, and (iii) the individual and collective hubris.

Complexity in Nature and Society

In politics, most issues are immeasurably complex with an unknown number of hidden variables. In addition, politics involves not only economic, social, and international issues, but also human biases and ideologies. This set of issues is analogous to the so-called “many-body problem” in physics, which relates to the description of the interaction between large numbers of elements. At least in the case of physics, all the particles obey the same rules and laws, while in the case of individuals in the society, there are many different rules involved. This is far more complex, as unlike physics, which deals with phenomena that are predictable to a relatively high degree, anything related to the behavior of human beings is much less predictable as they involve individuals with a wide range of complex and unique cognitive patterns. Thus, any process involving interactions between uniquely differing individuals is expected to be vastly more complex, with no available exact mathematical tools for analysis.

 One of the greatest dilemmas of politics relates to the complexity of society, with individuals having their own ways of looking at things or their own ideas about society and politics.

Flaws in Human Judgement and Organizations

Flaws in human judgement relate to cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is the tendency of the human mind to distort reality. This is caused by the limitations in human memory, perception, and thinking, leading to errors in judgment. Some examples of cognitive biases, which are of major concern in anticipating future problems, include the illusion of control (the tendency to believe one can control or influence outcomes that one cannot), the confirmation bias (the tendency to select or interpret information in a manner that confirms individual’s preconceptions); the bandwagon effect (the tendency to do or believe what others do or believe); the selective perception (the tendency for expectations to influence perception); the subjective validation (perception that a statement or fact is true because it has personal meaning and significance); and the positive outcome bias (the tendency to overestimate the probability of a favorable outcome) and related optimism bias and wishful thinking about the future.

Another important concept is that of “bounded rationality”, which refers to rational choices made in the presence of limitations on time and adequate knowledge and cognitive capacity. This concept, which is often used in economic predictions, states that fully rational decisions are not always possible due to limited human abilities for analyzing complex problems.

The dilemmas of politics can also be related to the flaws and shortcomings of organizations engineered by human beings, who are inherently limited in their understanding of complex political and social and economic systems. Thus, nearly everything organized or produced by humans contains inherent flaws.

 An important question is, why politicians make mistakes? Deeply entrenched political beliefs and identities can lead to irrationality, which often results in the distortion of the sense of reality, so that reality would fit an individual’s views, rather than the other way around. The tension or dissonance between beliefs and evidence can eventually result in misconceptions, misperceptions and misunderstandings. The main problem relates to the tendency to make decisions based on entrenched biases, rather than facts. In general, the human tendency is to disregard those facts that do not support one’s preconceived ideas and concepts. Paradoxically, political education and knowledge do not always resolve this dilemma, as entrenched knowledge is typically used to defend entrenched views and positions, rather than address the facts. In this context, it is important to note that politicians get attached to specific ideologies, which often become entrenched dogmas that confine the human mind. The issue with any type of knowledge or ideology is that one must both learn and unlearn in order to make some sense of reality. Since all concepts and ideologies are human constructs, they have limitations. It is essential to constantly reevaluate them against the background of the changing world.

Individual and Collective Hubris

One of the dilemmas of practicing politics (and of life in general) is the inability to know how to effectively deal with human drives for power, status, recognition, and competition.

Politics is a human drama. It is the theatre of life and the ultimate reality show. Its narrative could have originated from such sources as the Bible and the works of Shakespeare and Machiavelli. Politics is about the interplay between conflict and cooperation, and it is burdened with the tension between what is desirable and what is possible. To a certain extent, politics is also an extension of everyday life. Set against the background of the incalculable realities and complexities of human nature and the world, and the limited understanding of these realities, politicians often believe that they are the central characters in the drama, which also includes repeated promises and failures separated by election cycles.

In the end, political decisions often appear flawed, irrespective of the best intentions, due to both individual and systemic factors. The dilemmas of politics are not due to human hubris alone (self-interest, ego, biases), but due to a combination of those with the fundamental nature of human life in the presence of uncertainty, resulting in the unintended and unanticipated consequences.

For the solution of diverse political and social and economic problems, politicians have to deal with such a complexity of issues and data, together with convoluted interactions between all known and unknown factors, that no planning will be able to include all variables and their possible interactions. In the real life situations, the best intentions tend to get bogged down in the complexity of the issues. Thus, most of the promises and goals of politicians are rarely fulfilled.

One could never eliminate uncertainty and randomness in nature and society; they will always remain the attributes of human existence and political life. Thus, one must accept and endure the inevitable uncertainty and chaos in politics as parts of life.

About the Author
B. G. Yacobi received his PhD in physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1975. He held research positions at Imperial College London and Harvard University, as well as teaching positions in universities in the United States and Canada. He is the author/co-author of numerous articles and several books on physics, and of a number of essays on philosophy.
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