Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Politician's Syllogism, or, How politics solves problems

Read this:
His Royal Majesty was forced to swallow antimony a toxic metal. He vomited and was given a series of enemas. His hair was shave f, and he had blistering agents applied to the scalp, to drive any bad humours downward.
....Plasters of chemical irritants, including pigeon droppings, were applied to the soles of the royal feet, to attract the falling humours. Another ten ounces of blood was drawn.
....The king was given white sugar candy, to cheer him up, then prodded with a red-hot poker. He was then given forty drops of ooze from "the skull of a man that was never buried" who, it was promised, had died a. most violent death. Finally, crushed stones from the intestines of a goat from East India were forced down the royal throat
If you guessed that the next sentence reads something like, "not surprisingly, the king died soon after," then you wouldn't be too surprised.

The quote comes from new book The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson. It describes perfectly how politics "solves" problems.

Why did what was then the world's most celebrated physicians undertake such injudicious treatment on their single-most important patient? Because all the nations eyes were upon them.
The king died on February 6. But notice all the conspicuous effort in this story. If Charles's physicians had simply prescribed soup and bed rest, everyone might have questioned whether "enough" had been done. Instead, the king's treatments were elaborate and esoteric, By sparing no expense or effort -- by procuring fluids form a torture victim and stones from goat bellies -- the physicians were safe from accusations of malpractice.
The physicians were safe. The patient was not.

This is a prime example of what Sir Humphrey Appleby famously summarised as the Politician's Syllogism, "Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it." And be seen to do it.

In following the Syllogism the politicians themselves are almost always safe.

It's you and I who are not.

[Hat tip Michael Strong and David Weiner]


  1. Alimony may be toxic, but the metal Charles was force-fed is likely to have been antimony!


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