Vote for people, not policies

Why it’s not policies that’ll carry my vote in 2020

In the first two elections I could vote in, I dutifully followed conventional wisdom. I studied parties’ policies, watched debates, reasoned about which policies I liked, and voted for the party most closely reflecting them. I have to say, it was laborious, even for someone who follows political news closely. Some initiatives tried to make this easier, summarizing parties’ stances on a range of topics. In practice, they didn’t help much. I was still frantically perusing parties’ websites the night before the election.

It’s hard because policy is complex. There are several dozen policy areas. Since no party will agree with me on everything, there’s weighing to do. But not just my weights — parties also care for some policies more than others. Moreover, one-sentence summaries don’t provide enough to assess policies. The devil’s often in the detail — the plans, the nuances, the unintended consequences. I bet you’ve never fully read every policy on every party’s website. If I offered such scrutiny, I wouldn’t have any time left for my day job. There’s just a lot, as the authors of Spinoff’s “Policy” tool in 2017 found:

It’s great knowing the policies. […] But people hoped for even more. We’ve had requests for dislike buttons, the ability to weight issues, and even to measure the costs of each policy favourited.

More importantly, this fixation on policy is misguided. Contrary to popular wisdom, a government’s most basic job isn’t to “implement policies”. It’s to run a country. Policies are part of this, but not even close to all of it. The events of 2020 have shown this spectacularly, requiring governments to improvise in panic. But it’s not just pandemics. A global economic downturn might throw your careful budget off balance. Advances in artificial intelligence might create and destroy opportunities for everyone else. America might elect a new president and overturn decades of diplomatic orthodoxy.

Just as it’s a CEO’s job to navigate a company or nonprofit, a principal’s job to navigate a school, a captain’s job to navigate a ship through whatever comes, it’s a government’s job to navigate a country. Often, your values inform how you do so. But there are things you have to do, independent of political stripe. I don’t mean values in disguise, like “listening to science” or things that “should be above politics”. I mean the boring, tiresome stuff. Digesting and questioning civil servants’ advice. Managing and motivating a team. Understanding stakeholders. Communicating clearly. The part of running a country that’s about getting stuff done.

A quick personal history

I started writing “confessions of a swing voter” posts in 2014, the third election I voted in. A friend commented then that I “seem to focus on personalities”. In response, I tried to justify why:

I think you misinterpret my “focus on personalities”. I obsess with intellectual honesty because I think frank discussions lead to better policy decisions. I still lament when people talk about “charisma” like it’s important. And leaders won debates by defending their policy and exposing problems with their opponent’s.

In hindsight, this defence was misguided. It’s all true, but it frames personal attributes as merely a means to policy, which is a weird mental maze that I could’ve bypassed by defending intellectual honesty for what it is — something that makes you a better leader, and a better human.

In 2017, you could see my rigour on policy start to fade:

My three major voting issues are housing, superannuation and immigration. This partly reflects their importance, but the real reason I set these apart is that they have fairly obvious answers — or at least, obviously wrong answers.

One might have called this intellectually lazy. Gone was any analysis of several dozen policy areas before aggregating them with carefully tuned weights. I had made a litmus test that was based on “policy”, but in focusing on “obviously wrong answers”, what I had really designed was a proxy for quick judgements on competence without diving into technical details. What if I just made those judgements directly?

Why competence comes before policy

There are questions about when policy and competence are two sides of the same coin, but it’s more enlightening to understand when they aren’t. Let me build this up.

(1) Admirable policies can and do give way to ministerial incompetence.

This is, hopefully, a warm-up claim. You can argue about the specifics of a state-backed scheme for building 100,000 homes, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen.

(2) When a crisis hits, your personal attributes are all you’ve got.

Your election manifesto didn’t contain a blueprint for the 2008 financial crisis, the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, the 2019 mosque shootings or the covid-19 pandemic. We tend to think of crises as once-in-a-blue-moon events, but they’re really not. Even counting only the major ones, there seems to be a half-chance of one in each three-year term. All the smaller crises that don’t make the front page require you to make things up as you go, too.

Okay, you might be thinking, so (1) and (2) argue that competence matters. That’s fair enough; but policy still takes centre-stage, no? I’m glad you asked. Let’s step things up a notch.

(3) We can’t predict the impact of most policies, and in those cases, the competence of those in charge matters more.

Policymakers often talk about “unintended consequences”. A common example is rent control, which restricts how much landlords can charge and is supposed to make housing more affordable, but actually exacerbates the shortage. (We don’t do this in New Zealand, for good reason, but it’s strangely common in America and Europe.)

Sometimes, like with rent control, careful analysis by academics gives a clearer picture. Occasionally, like with rent control and the question “is climate change happening?”, there’s an academic consensus. With most policy areas, there’s not. Policy questions are normally a lot more complex than a simple “good” or “bad”. There are many ways to incentivise housing construction and disincentivise carbon emissions. Their impacts are complex because the world is messy. This is why, for example, the evidence on charter schools is complicated: it depends on how they’re done. I lack the time and expertise to properly assess the evidence. There’s a reason our taxes pay people to do it for us.

Sometimes, like with universal basic incomes and autonomous vehicles, even experts can’t know for sure. Unless some jurisdiction’s tried it out somewhere, there isn’t any concrete evidence, only intelligent guesswork. It’s more important to monitor, assess and adjust plans in real time. Anyone who’s managed any project in any other context knows this. Public health officials all over the world have been doing it recently, revising lockdown and mask rules as new evidence rolls in. NCEA, the radical (and still unparalleled internationally) high school reforms introduced in 2002, is another such study. Even for well-studied issues, this monitoring is important too, because nothing ever quite goes exactly to plan.

These epistemic problems aren’t the exception. They’re the rule, because the future is unpredictable and every society is unique. International and past experience gives clues, sometimes big ones, but when you hit the ground, success or failure rests on the diligence, open-mindedness and agility of everyone working on it, including the politicians in charge.

Claim (3) is the biggest plank of my case. I’ve got one more, but I say it with a lot more caution than the above three.

(4) I’d sometimes prefer a policy that isn’t my favorite done competently, over my preferred policy done poorly.

We often think about policies as on a one-dimensional line between “good” and “bad”. I don’t think that’s how it works. Policies can go in lots of different directions. A good implementation of a policy is good in its own right: citizens will have a clear direction and can adjust for it, and seeing the empirical impact will be useful for future policymakers, who can readjust accordingly. So long as they’re not ill-intentioned, I’ll live with a good version of their idea, over a better idea whose shoddy implementation wastes hopes and time.

This principle has obvious limits. It takes a certain degree of privilege to be able to comfort yourself with the idea that the worst case won’t be that bad. Take suboptimal policies far enough, and eventually you’ll arrive in the zone where they do reflect on people. It’s easy to find examples — just take any policy purposefully oppressing minorities.

I concede that for some of you, your “acceptable policy” zone might be much smaller than mine. If you’re a die-hard environmentalist, you probably think that “not optimizing for the environment” is incompetence or malevolence; similarly for libertarians and freedom. Clearly, I don’t take this view, but I imagine it feels similar to how I thought “blaming the housing crisis on the Chinese” demonstrated incompetence in 2017.

I happen to believe that such principled positions can be dangerously narrow-minded, but that’s for another day. For now, my point is that at least some of the time, there are multiple reasonable policies, and the trade-off between the choices includes how capable the people in charge are.

What is competence?

What sort of competence am I looking for? It’s hard to pin down, but I’ll try to give a partial picture.

I’d support prospective MPs who will make a productive contribution to Parliament. Part of this is intellectual honesty, curiosity and humility — having values is good, but unwavering convictions are not. It helps if they show thoughtfulness when it comes to complex issues. I’d hope to see active efforts to understand constituents — part of governing well is learning from as many perspectives as you can. I’m willing to forgive some party hackery, but I’d prefer MPs who clearly don’t see themselves as pawns for the party line. Political astuteness is a factor, and not just indirectly: you’ll be a more effective contributor if you can read a room and pick your battles.

For prospective ministers, it also means managerial competence. I want ministers who do their homework on their portfolios. We don’t often talk about how ministers manage relationships with their civil servants, but if information comes my way, it’ll be a factor. I don’t necessarily expect full transparency, but I do want to see a habit of being upfront, especially when things aren’t going to plan.

I don’t expect anyone to hit every box. Politicians are human; each has their own flaws. Those who are quick to demand resignations for past missteps should keep this in mind — if we required perfection of our politicians, there’d be no one left to do the job. Like with all humans, it’s more important that they’re committed to constantly learning and improving themselves.

By the way, I realise I’ve ended up focusing on competence, rather than personal attributes in general. This isn’t because it’s the most important, but because in New Zealand, it’s typically what ends up differentiating politicians. It goes without saying that any issues with divisiveness, scapegoating groups of people (ethnic, socio-economic or otherwise), corruption or integrity would weigh much more highly. Looking around the world, we’re very lucky that that doesn’t have to be top of mind (most of the time).

Answers still aren’t easy

I started my disillusionment with “voting on policy” by saying it’s too hard — too many moving parts, too much to learn. Yet assessing a person isn’t exactly easier. If you’ve ever had to make hiring decisions, you’ll know this already.

Moreover, most of what makes someone a good minister or a good MP happens behind the scenes. The campaign trail is only loosely representative of an MP’s work, in much the same way that job interviews are only loosely representative of the real job. For good reason, media aren’t privy to ministerial briefings and party caucuses, let alone coffee-machine conversations. Select committee meetings (more informative than the theatre of House debates) are, let’s face it, boring, and I’m hardly game to sit through all the recordings. Most of us don’t have the inside connections to get frank summaries from people we trust. And how am I meant to decide on my party vote? Even if I argue that a party is just a group of people, what if some of them are great, and others not so much?

In practice, I’ve mostly watched party leaders, and weighted relaxed, in-depth interviews more highly, like the NZ Herald’s “Hot Seat” series in 2014. (I’m not aware of a similar exercise in 2017.) For minor parties I can sort of live with this, but for parties with many prospective ministers, this approximation seems not so great.

So, while I’m hoping this shift in mindset will offer some relief from the frustrating brain-twister of policy analysis and be more relevant to how well the next Parliament and government do, it remains to be seen how it’ll actually help me decide on my vote. I’ll be figuring it out as I go.

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