Would You Like Subsidiarity With That?

As it happens, the question of whether politics is a service industry once came up at the family dinner table, a number of years ago. I remember it because, on airing, my wife immediately quipped “Isn’t it a disservice industry?” and there the topic rested.

Tempting as it is to leave it there once more, given the time invested in the discussion leading to this question, let’s continue. John is after all brave and intelligent man, who like many economists struggles every day with Compulsive Quantification Disorder. He suggests here that Members of Parliament are best viewed as a kind of outsourced policy unit, a way to deal with our busy, everyday lives.

In a closing example it is asked Why do we hold an MP, who has power over our lives, to a higher ethical standard than say, a heart surgeon, who also has power over our lives?

Well, the question itself is wrong – we do hold heart surgeons to an extraordinary ethical standard, where we expect them to use their professional skills to their upmost to save their patients’ lives. And this is because saving lives and fixing dodgy hearts is at the focus of their professional role. If a heart surgeon fiddles with expenses, we are irritated because we paid more than necessary, and we feel certain general levels of professionalism have been breached, but it doesn’t compromise our mended heart. It’s also worth noting that a heart surgeon mostly has responsibilities to single patients; for our purposes she is mostly a hub, with spoke relationships emanating out to her patients.

What does an MP do? One of the roles they play is as a low tech vote proxy service for their constituents on particular votes before the Commons (or parliament of choice). John’s example is probably closer to say a mutual fund manager, making investment decisions on our behalf according to broad published guidelines, in this case a party manifesto, plus any individual pledges. On top of that, if they are in the cabinet, they also execute policy. Due to the way the Westminster system works, where the government can change without an election, this also goes for the shadow cabinet. That would be the part of government that can declare war, put you in prison for not paying your taxes, and so on. Any of these roles require good judgement and good character, and allowing people to be corrupt as a backbencher, but then reform as a minister seems an implausible reading of human nature.

Even this characterization is inadequate, however. Each and every member of parliament is responsible for the maintenance of the rule of law, to their constituents and to the common weal, whether society chooses them or not. To do that job requires respecting the law in the spirit and in the letter, its conventions and moral basis. It’s as fundamental as a heart surgeon being skilled at stitching up hearts. When you fail to respect the law – worse, the reason the law exists – then you prove yourself inadequate at an MP’s job.

Do people inevitably fall shy of this high moral standard, from time to time? Well, yes; and I’m actually pretty willing to overlook misdemeanors like claiming four pounds on dog food. I do find it indicative that one of the most centralising, box-ticking parliaments of recent times has fallen so broadly awry of exactly these sorts of pettifogging rules: it was lousy law and now we’re seeing why. Perhaps that has also fuelled some of the outrage and resentment behind this expenses scandal.

The state is larger than human at times, monstrous and casually cruel; this mortal God, Hobbes called it. To direct it, or mold this mortal god is yes, a sacred trust of sorts. It is sad when, from time to time, it chews politicians up and spits them out, the way lions, from time to time, chew up antelopes. It is sad but not unexpected.

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