David Cameron says something curious:
For me, politics shouldn't be some mind-bending exercise. It's about what you feel in your gut – about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong
As a member of the Meh to AV camp, I have mixed feelings about this attitude.I want to applaud Cameron’s honesty. Most of us, normally, use apparently rational arguments as a cloak of respectability for what are really instincts and prejudice. It’s refreshing to see someone breaking with this hypocritical and self-serving tosh.Also, there’s much to be said for gut instinct. As Malcolm Gladwell showed in Blink!, there are many cases when snap judgments work.Such cases are common when there is huge Knightian uncertainty, as in such cases rationality does us little good simply because we can foresee only a tiny subset of all possible events. I’ve long suspected - albeit based upon my personal experience - that many of the best investment decisions are founded more upon gut instinct than upon explicit reasoning, as this can at least warn us when something fishy is going on. I suspect this is what Cameron’s doing here; he’s got a feeling he can’t articulate that AV is a slippery slope to something nasty.This is a perfectly respectable small-c conservative attitude. As Michael Oakeshott wrote (pdf), there is much to be said for a cautious disposition to prefer the familiar and the known rather than the rationalist promises of improvement.On the other hand, though, I have misgivings.For one thing, such an attitude is very close to idle cultural relativism. If politics is all about gut feel, it’s not obvious what difference there is between liberal democrats and Islamists. Their gut feeling is to oppress women and kill infidels. Our gut feeling is otherwise. How can we distinguish the two, without some “mind-bending exercise” which puts values onto some rational foundation?Also, such an attitude brings the legitimacy of government into (further) question. Why should I obey Cameron’s gut feelings? The obvious answer, of course, is that he has the power of the state to back them. Equally, if gut feel is all there is, then there’s little place for rational debate. The clash between your gut instincts and mine can be resolved only by force of ballots or bullets. But this reduces politics to mere power (which it is, of course - but it would be nice to retain some illusions to the contrary.) In this sense, Cameron’s elevation of gut instinct serves big-C conservative interests. It is the rich and powerful, by definition, who have power on their side whilst the poor have, at best, truth and reason. Anything that downplays the latter, therefore, supports the interests of the ruling class.It does this in another sense too. Put it this way. How did I, and a few like me, manage to “rise” - God, I hate that metaphor - out of our poor childhoods? It’s because we succeeded at education - because of our knowledge and reasoning ability. But now, we are told that such ability is not what really matters. When I passed all those exams, I was not demonstrating that I had the skills to join the elite: it‘s gut instinct that matters, after all, not knowledge and logic. Instead, I was like a dog jumping through hoops - performing a few mildly distracting tricks in exchange for a patronizing pat on the head.