Political Judgement Is Not Science- It’s About People

My last column, which began the New Year, was aptly titled by The Daily Record “Let Us Resolve to Find the Best Leaders in Every Field.” With that resolution and the four columns that preceded it headlined “Facing the Challenge of Finding, and Picking Good Judges. I found myself continuing to reflect on an article written by Michael Ignatieff, a former professor at Harvard and contributing writer for the New York Times, who is now a member of Canada’s Parliament and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
             That article which appeared in the August 5, 2007 New York Times Magazine was entitled,“Getting Iraq Wrong/ What the War Has Taught Me about Political Judgment.”  Its significance is not its commentary on the narrow topic of what went wrong in the decision making of not only the President of the United States, but also of the writers, pundits and Academic Commentators, who supported the invasion of Iraq among whom the author includes himself. Rather, Ignatieff’s analysis of the difference between what constitutes “good judgment” in politics and what “good judgment” is and looks like in intellectual life is what is important here. The most poignant as well as the most durable ideas, which he presents in this discussion, should inform our observations and the opinions we form about everything from watching presidential debates to selecting our leaders in all three branches of government at the federal, state, and local levels.
            As Ignatieff points out referencing the work of the philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, whom this writer has written about previously admiring his most famous essay, entitled “The Hedge Hog and The Fox,” a column published last June 25, 2007; the attribute that underpins “good judgment” in politicians is a sense of reality, which is to be distinguished from what is considered “good judgment in intellectual life.” Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics specifics matter more than generalities. Theory can often get in the way of a politician’s understanding what the true reality is.
            Isaiah Berlin clarifies this by writing with reference to figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that, “what is called wisdom in statesmen is understanding, rather than knowledge- some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that enable those who have it to tell what fits with what; what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how far, without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.” This means that politicians can’t confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be.
            This very much comports with my belief reinforced as I get older and more observant, that the most important factor affecting the quality of political decision-making is who is in the room and who is heard before the decision is made. In practical politics, as Michael Ignateff points out, “There is no science of decision-making – the vital judgments a politician makes everyday are about people: whom to trust, whom to believe and whom to avoid.” Having good judgment in these matters and having a sound sense of reality requires trusting some very unscientific instincts and intuitions about people.
            This contrasts with the world occupied by Academics and Commentators. As Berlin once pointed out- they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they don’t have the time or the patience to consider ideas that are merely interesting. They have to confine their attention to the small number of ideas that have the virtue of being true and the even smaller number that actually apply to real life. In academic and intellectual life false ideas can still be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious human and fiscal resources. An intellectual’s responsibility is to master the consequences of his ideas wherever they may lead. A politician’s responsibility is to master these consequences and prevent from doing harm. How does this apply to the issues facing our country and our state? Stay tuned to “The Pursuit of Justice” in two weeks to find out.

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