Monday, 17 March 2008

Answers versus decisions

A great woman* once said, in reference to magazine cover designs, that there are no answers, only decisions. It strikes me that this rather insightful comment can actually be applied far more widely, and probably explains why we get ourselves in a mess about politics so often.

We like the idea of 'answers' because they are clear, and unambiguous. On the other hand 'decisions' involve judgment and compromise. Our desire for 'answers' is tied up with the idea that there are 'correct' responses to problems, whereas 'decisions' suggest that things are a lot more finely balanced than that, and that we actually have significant scope for choice. The idea that there are definitive answers also makes life seem much more knowable. With hindight it looks like we can see what the best thing to do was, so we can see if someone chose the 'correct' option, or at least a 'good' one. But surely a field like politics, where many things cannot be empirically proven, must always be primarily about decisions rather than answers.

It's definitely a muddle that affects politics. For example, a lot of non-Labour lefties can tell you what socialism isn't, and why examples of it in practice are not 'real' socialism. They often are rather less good at pointing to real-life examples of what they do like, as opposed to text book theories or very limited experiences from many decades ago. In some cases the correct version of socialism hasn't even been implemented, yet despite this they 'know' that it is the right one, and will be good thing for those of us that will experience it. That suggests to me a rather large focus on a very specific 'answer'. I'm not sure if it's just a coincidence that it's an answer that is very hard to prove wrong.

In case you haven't guessed, I prefer the 'decisions' camp. I think we spend out time more effectively considering the actual decisions that our leaders make, and whether they have a positive or negative impact, than attacking them for failing to provide the right 'answer'. Much of the rhetoric about Labour's 'betrayal' looks a bit daft when you think in these terms. Sometimes you get a good result with the wrong answer.

On a personal level I'm really bad at making decisions myself. And that's in no small part because in the back of my mind I think there is an optimal choice that I will be able to identify if I only take the time. I'm always grappling for 'the answer'. But at least in politics I think I'm teaching myself to spot what is good enough, rather than 'correct' and I think that is a smallish step forward.

* Mrs Tom

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