Honesty is the best (losing) policy

We were bouncing ideas around before Christmas about trust, the honesty of politicians, European leaders, bankers, the regulators (and the regulatory framework) etc.

Then Ray Fletcher sent me a report from the US that called for political reform.

It included a paragraph:

How about we resolve to elect honest people whose first mandate is to revolutionize Congress by enacting laws that strip them of their un-American privileges, inordinate power to pander to bankers and their ability to hide behind their offices as if they are above every other American?

I thought that was both brilliant and sad.

Brilliant, because if we could do that with politicians, regulators, bankers etc. we’d have a better world – sad because I think it misunderstands the psychology of power and is unrealistic.

Think of politicians.  The Greek Philosopher Diogenes searched for an honest man.  In the society that was the fount of Democracy, he couldn’t find one.

Imagine we do better, we find an honest person.  What interest do they have in getting elected?  They don’t want power for themselves, so do they want to engage in the in-fighting involved in getting the funding and material support to get elected?  Without it, how will they get elected?

Imagine they get a party’s support. At the first vote where their personal integrity conflicts with party policy they will, being honest, vote with their conscience.  That’s the end of party support, they’re a dangerous loose cannon.  Or do they compromise their ethics for the sake of keeping their place.  So their own career is more important than what they know to be the truth.  And they haven’t even got elected yet!

In the show Soho Cinders (which I recommend you see), Stiles and Drew describe a fictional Mayoral candidate for London, who runs on a platform of integrity, anti-sleaze, honesty.  Here are some elements of his initial feelings:

How can you go wrong with honest,

How can you go wrong with simple truth, plain talking?

That’s what people want.

Since when did decency become old fashioned, hidden by a smokescreen of cliché?


How can you go wrong with honest,

How can you give way to lies and sleaze, I ask you,

What is there to gain?

And who made arrogance a job requirement for the public servants we elect?

It’s all great stuff, he’s a wonderful character, you’re rooting for him to win before the end of the song.

And then the agent appears.  He’s the bad guy (or realist, depending on your point of view).

He says that:

At the end of the day, it’s all about a cross in a box.

And that’s the point.

Spoiler alert, the hero doesn’t get elected!

In our democratic system, it is about a cross in a box.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s proportional representation, first past the post, Westminster, Holyrood, the White House or anywhere else, that cross is what matters.

It might help to remember that the song I’ve referred to is called, Spin.  And it also has the line:

Spin, spin out of control, sign the paperwork and sell your soul.

We might think we want honesty, but we’ve got a system that is set up to squeeze it out.

The people who are going to get elected and get political power are the ones determined enough to jump through the hoops to get elected.  That means they’ve got to want it a lot, they must be really motivated to get that power.

How motivated to do what it takes is the person who doesn’t want the power anyway?

The motivations, the rewards, the structures, the whole system, is set up to reward spin, deceit, arrogance, selfishness etc. and to weed out the weak/altruistic, naive/honest, flawed/humble individual.

In the same way, corporate power is available, but think about the system that operates to decide who gets it and controls it.

If you are a banker and obey the spirit, not the letter of the law on investments, what is likely to happen?  You’ll pull out of securitised, bundled property in the US, because it is very profitable, but extremely risky.  That is not likely to get you voted European Banker of the Year or get you a Knighthood (even if they want to take it back later anyway).  Nor is it likely to endear you to the corporate shareholders who wanted big returns on investment, and who are likely to vote you out.

But if you do what everybody else does, bend the rules (and maybe break them, as long as you can hide what you’re doing), you get rewarded handsomely.

Meanwhile, the regulator “obviously” has to be an expert, a top financier, incorruptible and wise.  They have to know how complex finance is, have to have worked in the industry, to be in the “tribe” with the people being regulated so will they be objective about their friends?  Or will they extend the sort of consideration we extend to our friends when they face tough decisions and maybe make the odd mistake?

I’d love it if we put honest people into positions of power..

But if we want to do that, we need to realise that in the abstract, honest quite possibly means “disinterested” (not uninterested) and the systems we have in politics, in business and in regulation don’t put disinterested people at the top, they put very biased people at the top.

If we want to get “honesty” in there, we have to have a system that promotes honesty, rather than squeezes it out, that weeds out selfishness, spin, superficiality rather than rewarding them.

It isn’t easy.  But as somebody who has absolutely no desire to be PM, a banker or a regulator, I can give a disinterested opinion that can, I think, be regarded as expert.

Finding honest people is a waste of time until we have a system that promotes them to the top.  So the first priority is to change the system.

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  • Anonymous

    Kim, as usual a super and thought-provoking piece. It set my mind thinking about Italy. Here we have a leader (unelected OK) charged with getting the country back on its feet. He has no “party baggage” to restrain him; he has foregone his salary and slowly is making an impact. He is a technocrat, his position agreed to by the majority of the Italian  parliament. Yes, he will encounter opposition from “the street” but that’s par for the course anywhere. What I am trying to do is “square the circle” – perhaps a technocratic approach may be the strategy but there is a caveat – this can probably only work under dire economic conditions; where such conditions do not exist (and one can apply this to both companies and countries) there is little or no incentive to take the “status” out of the status quo. I will ponder more and probably write again….. 

  • Kim

    Thanks Ray,  I think Italy is a good example.  But it isn’t the whole answer.  I’d refer you to Terry Pratchett (one of my heros).  In the “Night watch” books, Vimes points out that people want a “good” King, but if he’s good, you need his deputy, and the Queen, and all the princes to be good people, and the Chancellor, and in fact anybody who can rule in the King’s name.  If they are not all good people, you’ll have a problem at some point.  Fortunately, they have a King (Carrot) who doesn’t want to be King and a wonderful politician (Vetinari) who runs the city as a dictator.  But what happens when Vetinari dies?  Ultimately, you have to have a system that will get the right people into power, because you can’t rely on only good people ending up in charge without a system that makes sure that is what happens and that puts a check on people who are not good people.  Unless, of course, you could have the world run by a genius like Terry Pratchett, but I dont’ think that’s going to happen, sadly!

  • Anonymous

    Kim – I have had a good “ponder” and would make the following points:
    1. reverting to your previous post, we may “think” we are beyond fighting over the water-hole but I have my doubts. Maybe the human animal is “hot-wired” NOT to forget and as the world evolves increasingly rapidly, we tend to revert to type.
    2. many years ago I had an excellent old boss (and mentor) who had risen far enough up the organisation chart to be totally satisfied. His view was that “the higher you go, the more bastards there are wanting to pull you down”. As a young man this was a very salutory piece of advice. Eventually he was “pulled down”  through peer group jealousy.
    3. In trying to bridge your two excellent posts with the last one from  Ken Eisold, a review of the Edelman Trust Barometer is a further salutory experience; the level of trust appears to have fallen in the majority of categories, globally.

    Can we ever recover the level of trust, honesty (and yes maybe a degree of altruism)? I wonder; millennia of being what we are makes it unlikely in my opinion, until / unless we as a race are met with something totally outside our experience that will necessitate a global binding. 

  • Kim

    Hi Ray, yes, my opinion is that, effectively we’re not evolving (because we’ve stopped natural selection for people).  So we’ll act in accordance with 200,000 years of conditioning.
    If the system says if you dominate the water hole, you get water, if you don’t dominate, you and your tribe die of thirst, so we’ll be selfish and dominate.
    But if you have a system that says, if you try to dominate the water hole you get involved in a war that will either kill you, or so reduce your status that you won’t be the chief any more, you won’t be so keen, and if the system also says if you agree to share access to water you might end up as chief of two tribes instead of one – well, that’s a different story.
    People are people, they react to situations.  If the situation is, greed is the only way to be safe and get status, we’ll be more greedy and selfish.  If the situation is, greed loses you status, altruism builds it, we’ll be more altruistic.
    Doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean that people weren’t better in “the good old days” (despite all the killing, patriotic spirit etc. crime, (including violent crime) goes up dramatically in wartime).  If we’re seeing (as we seem to) a decline in trust, altruistic behavioiur, more greed and selfishness etc. it’s because the hunter-gatherer in us sees the rewards in being selfish and very little downside (OK, they take away Fred’s Knighthood, most of us don’t get one in the first place), and we don’t see virtue rewarded. 
    Change the system, you change the behaviour.  Keep the system the same and feed different people into it, and you’ll get the same sort of people getting to the top, the same (greedy) behaviour being encouraged and the same (altruistic) behaviour meaning that nice guys finish last. 
    I don’t think people are getting worse, and I don’t think people are changing, they are just responding to what is rewarded like they always have.  Noblesse oblige is old fashioned, – greed is good.  If Wayne Rooney can have 570,000 followers on Twitter and be paid £150,000 a week, and somebody who raises £1 million for charity can be on the breadline and unknown, well, what are the public and the system rewarding?