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Why the worst can still get to the top

When discussing local politics, listening or watching the local news, or hearing of the latest scandal emanating from government, I often hear the response “if only John Doe was in power”. Or “if we could only find better and more honest people”, things would be so much better.

Too often issues such as corruption, incompetence, wasteful spending, never-ending borrowing and failure to respond to crises are viewed by voters as preventable or simply a by-product of having the wrong people in the House of Assembly.

But, I wonder, would things be really any different if different people were in charge? If we had angels instead of hacks; or competent, intelligent people rather than bozos, would things change for the better?

F.A. Hayek (1899-1992), Nobel laureate and recipient of the Medal of Freedom, addressed such questions in 1944 in one of the most famous books ever written called The Road to Serfdom. It is one of my favourites, and many people credited its message as the first body blow to the Soviet bloc of countries, which collapsed between 1989 and 1991 — an amazing 25 years ago. The book is still a bestseller and a bargain at about $10.

I recall seeing the TV news in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn town, and a feeble old man, Hayek, smiling and saying to the world cameras: “I told you, I told you as far back as 1944 that this would happen.”

His book was more dangerous than the American hydrogen bomb because it exposed to the world the truth of communism, with all of its corruption, lies, poverty, insanity and injustice.

What does all of this have to do with Bermuda — and the rest of the world — in 2016? Quite a lot.

On September 26, The Royal Gazette front page led with an article entitled “Unfit to lead. Poll reveals voters lack of faith in MPs to govern country”. The report said that few voters had any trust in our political leaders, and the most popular response from the public when asked whom they trusted was “none of them”.

A few days later, John Wight, of the Chamber of Commerce, lamented the lack of principles in our politicians. Yesterday, a Royal Gazette editorial concluded with the wish that professional politicians should vanish from public life. Some hope.

At present, we have a Royal Commission looking into the Auditor-General's report, where alarming questions were raised about the financial competence and honesty of many of our political leaders and senior civil servants during the period 2010 to 2012.

Similar dissatisfactions are experienced in the United States, where two highly unpopular candidates are vying for the presidency. In Britain, the Prime Minister was ousted when the electorate said they had no confidence in the European Union — a cause he fervently supported.

Countries as varied as France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Spain are giving the thumbs down to their political leaders.

Virtually the whole world distrusts politicians. Why?

Much of the answer lies in chapter ten of The Road to Serfdom, which is entitled “Why the Worst get to the Top”.

The worst? Not the best? Surely democracy is all about electing the best and the brightest to positions of power. The sad reality is that there are few George Washingtons or Winston Churchills in political life.

So why do the worst get to the top of the political heap? Hayek gave three reasons:

• In order to obtain a high degree of uniformity in opinion about how to govern, it is necessary to have a group of people who are prepared to give up high principles in order to achieve power. (Hayek described such people as having low moral standards. The more one hears from the Royal Commission the more one thinks “maybe he had a point”)

• In order to obtain and maintain power, political leaders need to gain the support of the gullible, and those whose passions are easily aroused. (We just have to think of the People's Campaign and its threatening behaviour a few months ago, which prevented Parliament and the Supreme Court from meeting)

• Political parties are wedded to the idea of having a common enemy. In Hitler's Germany, it was the Jews; in Russia, it was the Kulaks; in South Africa, it was the blacks; in Britain, it was the capitalists; in the United States right now, it is the immigrants — and this from an immigrant country. (In Bermuda, too often the “expat” or long-term resident are the fall guys. Expatriates are blamed for our present unemployment — untrue but the gullible believe it)

Party platforms, especially on economic matters, can only be put into practice by employing methods of which most politicians and voters strongly disapprove. Most politicians, but not all, are prepared to employ methods of which they disapprove in order to achieve power and high office, and the financial benefits that come with it.

The net result is that there is indecision, confusion, inconsistency, incompetence, lies, dishonesty, corruption and a host of other transgressions against ethical behaviour so that squeamish participants exit the political scene.

Is it surprising that voters express their lack of respect and disgust with the political system?

That is the position we find ourselves in Bermuda, hence the survey in The Royal Gazette published on September 26. We are not alone in the mud, as one can learn by following political news in the US and Europe.

I would urge everyone to read The Road to Serfdom, especially chapter ten. Its message from 1944 is still relevant in 2016 — even in Bermuda.

•Robert Stewart is the author of two books on the Bermuda economy and a director at several local companies and investment funds

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Published October 06, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated October 06, 2016 at 2:02 am)

Why the worst can still get to the top

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