UK Election: Three Cheers for Uncertainty

The UK electorate is told to fear a 'hung parliament' and back 'strong government'. But voters should welcome uncertainty. Jeremy Hardie sets out a new approach to politics.
Jeremy Hardie
28 April 2010

Why do we get so worried when we don’t know what is going to happen?
In the current British general election we are being asked to think about new experiences, at least for the UK, like a hung parliament, elections under proportional representation, having the Lib Dems in power. But when confronted with a new experience two things take place.
First, we try to guess what it would be like. Would the government be slow and indecisive? Would foreign lenders panic? Can the right wing of the Lib Dems really work with the Old Labour rump? Or with Cameron?
How can we know?
So we set off on a conscientious but doomed attempt to work out in advance where it will take us. Is Germany the best parallel, so we don’t have to worry about the economic effects of coalitions? Or is it Israel, and will the BNP or UKIP have the balance of power, like the orthodox Jews? Will we never have the leadership to go to war on Iraq, and a good thing too? Will we never have the leadership to intervene in Bosnia, alas?
Very quickly we find that there are no remotely conclusive answers to these questions.
So, second, we start getting nervous. If we don’t know what will happen, shouldn’t we worry about the uncertainty itself? We start to latch on to the worst case arguments, to justify our reluctance to change. It seems like a very bad idea indeed to have the Israeli problem and it might well happen. So let’s not do anything in case. And we dredge up folk wisdom, which is always against change. Coalitions are just “not the British way of doing politics”, as Ed Balls says.
This conservatism has a parentage. If you have been brought up to be rational you are meant to think systematically about what you are doing. You should consider the alternatives, work out what will happen in each case, and choose the best. You can take risks. But risk in this rationalist account is a bloodless notion to do with probability distributions and mean expected values – what a percentage poker player with a good memory for the cards will use. It is not what taking risks in life is really like, which is being bewildered and scared.

When there is a lot of uncertainty, you have no real grasp of the probabilities and a precise calculus is impossible. You cannot see how to optimise. So, because an unsystematic decision is supposed to be a bad decision, you fall back on doing nothing. Were you to vote Lib Dem, you don’t really know what will happen. So you don’t. (Forget that you don’t really know what will happen if you vote for the other two either, they have the advantage of apparent familiarity.)
This reaction is more common among people on the right. This is a paradox as they are more in favour of the free market. A free marketer should not be worried if you can’t forecast what will happen. It is only in a planned economy that you attempt to decide what the future is supposed to look like. But in a market economy, you set up a decentralised competitive system which establishes what people want and who can provide it. Nobody knows in advance what the answers will be. Conservatives ought to welcome new, open systems.
Wanting to know the detail of the policies of the main parties is a related mistake. It too has rationalist/social engineering parentage. We do not elect a government as subcontractors to carry out a plan which we have agreed with them. We chose a government because we think that it shares our values and is competent to decide what will be the best as unpredictable events occur. Looking at policy proposals, in so far as we do, is not about clarifying the contract. It is about having a conversation to see what the job applicant is like. Just like most interviews. In 1979 Mrs Thatcher looked good to many because you could see what she was like, not because she promised privatisation (she famously didn’t).
A contract is what you have to have when you don’t have trust (Clement Attlee). Contracts are about what you will get if you a deal with this agent (a government, a business partner) for a precise exchange. And it requires knowing well what will happen if…..  But most political decisions are not like that. Voting for the Lib Dems and maybe therefore for a hung parliament is not like entering a contract. You don’t and can’t know what will happen. But you can’t anyway, whatever the party. The uncertainty about the Lib Dems is simply that we see more clearly with them the reality of the situation whoever we chose.
The banal. clichéd, vulgar, insights which we hear and read all the time now - saying that we have had enough of the old system and the old lot, maybe even, we want to “break the mould”, are indeed unsophisticated. But they are not therefore bad arguments. And they are better than ever more careful analyses of the possible consequences of an AV or AV+ voting system.

Taking a leap into the unknown is certainly risky. By 2015, we may be longing for the orderliness of first-past-the-post electoral system. But today we have to make a bet. And that bet in made under conditions of uncertainty, where prediction of precise outcomes is a chimera.  Under these conditions it is a good thing to be attracted to a creative response to uncertainty. Nor is voting for disorder just a negative protest. Just as when you support a free market, you do so because you think that for a lot of goods and services it works better than central planning, even though you don’t know what it will produce: so by voting for political disorder now, you are betting that on the whole, for most political decisions, shaking it up will work better than what we have at present, even though you don’t know what it will produce.

Three cheers for uncertainty!

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