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The Policy Fractal Paradox

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Once upon a time, when I was a busy and active member of the Australian Democrats, the thing that made me most excited of all was working on science policy. I ran a couple of public forums (that very few people attended) and spoke at the national conference (that only Democrats attended) and wrote a science policy (that only I read).

I had never written a policy before, and I was immediately struck by two questions. Firstly, where do you start? But more importantly (especially at 3am before a conference talk) where do you stop?

Policy was meant to be the thing that differentiated us from those other parties, big and small; those single issue minor parties, those major parties corrupted by vested interests, the dogwhistling senators and backbenchers, those ideological zealots who refuse to negotiate. We were a party that forged intricately detailed policy in the fires of committees and consultation and casting votes.

So where do you stop? If detailed policy is good, when do you stop writing it?

The Paradox

The paradox starts with the idea that detailed, well-researched policies serve as both a reason to take a party seriously, and a reason to dismiss them, depending on the voter. But the cost and benefit of each additional policy detail eventually diminishes and even turns around, as voters weigh their disagreement more highly than their agreement. A voter might not even notice their agreement with many details, it being a kind of common-sense to them.

There is more to it than this; policy details may stand out as weird exceptions to otherwise good policy, undermining how serious the party’s commitment to a particular policy even is. This has always been how I’ve felt about the Greens' opposition to ANSTO in relation to the rest of their science policy: it just sticks out as this sign of Not Getting It. And I will come back to that.

So policies become this ever-unfolding fractal of potential reasons to turn away from a party, more than reasons to support it.

The more I reflected on this, the more it bothered me. Partly because I began to see policy-as-a-platform in this relativistic way, no more valid than identity politics or uncompromising ideology (as though “validity” was not already a subjective idea). But also because I recognised in myself an irrational behaviour, a kind of perfectionism, that made me part of the problem I was trying to solve.

I would read policies point by point, scrutinising every line as a single manifesto. And when I found something I disagreed with, it would go on this mental pile of reasons not to support that particular party. But I didn’t really have a corresponding pile for the good points, or for the overall vision. I would just build up this list of excuses to dismiss a party and never check back.

Talking to voters later on made me realise I wasn’t alone in doing this… or in rationalising it. But it also made me realise that maybe, just maybe, I needed to let go of the idea that policy volume was an unconditionally good thing.

Case in Point: The Perfectly Planned City

The Science Party’s charter city policy might be a good illustration of when you should set down your 1950s orange cased space pen, put away your Futura stencils and stop writing policy.

The policy is simply that there should be a new city, subsidised by the government and funded by industry, focused on science, research, and commercialisation of technology. But… there’s more. The policy also details the location (between Sydney and Canberra), the transport mode to connect it (high speed rail), immigration law exceptions (more of it), and the zoning regulations (eg. minimum population density). Even the name is already thought up: Turing.

Here’s the paradox in action: there are exactly zero voters who would vote for the Science Party after reading the charter city policy who wouldn’t have already voted for the Science party. That is, no one is going to switch votes after reading it. (I feel pretty comfortable making this assertion, so it must be true.) But going the other way: there may well be folk who read this policy, think “WTF,” and look elsewhere.

Even if there aren’t, even if the number of people in the second group is also zero… what’s gained? Have the policy ⇒ possibly lose some voters, or maybe you don’t. Ditch the policy ⇒ no change.

Why do something that has only a cost and no benefit?

How do we reconcile this with democratic principles though? Doesn’t this just doom politics from the start? Shouldn’t we be aiming for a range of parties with finely detailed policies, so we can make informed decisions? Isn’t that the ideal?

Diminishing returns on detail

Imagine you’re writing a science policy; a core part of it is how much funding should be allocated to public research. So you start with:

  • Science funding should be increased.

That seems… not specific enough. Increased to what? Relative to what? Will any amount of funding ever be enough for this party?

Okay, so the next thing you come up with is this:

  • Science funding should be increased to 3% of GDP.

Great work. Now there’s a number, and you’ve mentioned GDP which means you’re a serious party that knows economy things.

But… why stop there? 3% seems kind of arbitrary. And what if it’s a good time to spend big? So you crunch some numbers. You read some whitepapers. You keep writing:

  • Science funding should be increased to 3.2% of GDP.
  • Science funding should be increased to 3.25% of GDP.
  • Science funding should be increased to at least 3.25% of GDP, and up to 5% when interest rates are low enough to justify borrowing.
  • Science funding should be increased to at least 3.25% of GDP, with 1.75 percentage points extra for each percentage point that the current interest rate is below 6%, up to 5% of GDP.

Well, if the virtue of a political party is proportional to the precision of its policies, you’ve certainly achieved something. But how much more support would you actually gain at each step? Any? How much would you lose… and to who? What other party would this detail differentiate you from?

And ultimately… would this party ever really advocate for decreasing science funding if it were over whatever percent of GDP? Seems unlikely. Which means that the very first policy we wrote up there is, in fact, the most accurate after all.

All policy is improvisational anyway

Alternatively, imagine what would happen if the policy said 6% instead of 3%. Would you appeal to any new voters? Probably not. But someone, somewhere will look at this and say “What? Six percent? That’s totally unrealistic and unnecessary. Who are these idiots.” And for what? Would the outcome of negotiating the federal budget with the government be any different if your starting point was 6% instead of 3%? Of course not!

And that’s the real problem here. Say you get elected. Maybe your party even has balance of power. Congratulations. This still means very little with respect to the details of your policy. What matters are the principles that will guide you when you negotiate with other parties to pass legislation.

Even the parties that can form government have to deal with this. Even parties with majorities in both houses do not see their ideal policies enacted in full.

A charter city is never going to come up in debate, folks. It’s never going to be on the table even for a balance of power party. It will never be the deciding factor on the budget.

What voters need to know about are your guiding principles. When you argue about the next supply bill, and you have to choose between increased domestic science funding or an important human rights issue — what will you pick?

Adding detail after detail to your policy corpus does not help with that, except that voters will have a vague idea that policies with more detail are more important to you. In which case: just say that.

No one likes being betrayed

As I’ve said, the cost and benefit of each increment to a body of policy is not equally weighted by voters. This is a gut feel on my part, true, but it’s acquired from many conversations with undecided voters.

But there’s more to it than the policy itself. Voters will react far more negatively to being betrayed even once by a party than they will regard being adequately represented for years. Granted, this may be shaped by the political parties I’ve been in; I know that some parties have people who quietly despair while remaining loyal members and voters to the end.

Although I don’t share the opinion that supporting the GST cost the Democrats their place in politics, I don’t dispute that they took serious wounds from it. It was not enough that they had stood the ground on important social issues before or after that, nor did it matter that no real alternative existed at that point, nor did it matter that they had many other policies that were valuable. For many members and voters, one betrayal was too much. They could no longer trust that the Democrats would represent them. Their faith was lost. Their vote went with it.

So rather than even risk this betrayal, undecided voters might look for any reason to pre-emptively dismiss a party. They will comb through policy after policy, and one point of opposition might be enough to give up on you, so that their heart is never broken.

Time to spare

The other cost to a policy like this is someone wondering: why did they write this up, put it through their policy process, refine it and publish it when they could have been doing other things? They could have been supporting their candidates a little more. There’s a whole community of scientists out there who could use a bit of help with crowdfunding, promotion, networking… why not do that?

I do not like to criticise others for where they direct their energy (I mean, if it’s not completely evil). As far as I’m concerned, the only real counterargument is to direct my energy to wherever I think it should go. Hey, I could’ve done all those things too, and instead I wrote this blog post. So if someone in the science party really, really wants to spend their time on this, fine.

But my point is: it means nothing to me, and probably to many others. And the point of being a political party is to mean something to other people. Getting elected is not the only way to represent people. Electoral campaigning is not the only role that a political party can play.

So I’m left wondering: was this policy really the best way for the science party to use that energy to represent their constituency?

Faith and voting

I do not think this is an overly cynical analysis. Rather, this comes from me realising, over time, how great a role faith and trust plays in voting.

Some like to mock certain voting practices for not being academic enough. They use rhetoric like “cult of personality” or “popularity contest” as though voters who take their cues from words that reflect certain values or knowledge of a shared background are somehow stupider than wonks who analyse policy documents in detail. This is patronising, bitter and unfair.

Ultimately all anyone is doing is forming a basis for faith in how a party will act in the future. There’s not really an objectively better way to do this. Is it more rational to trust a party whose policy aligns perfectly with your ideal world, but who never actually implements it when they have the chance? Or to trust a party whose policy changes all the time, but whose candidates at least seem like they know what it’s like to do the job you do, or to grow up where you grew up, or to deal with the crap that you deal with daily?

The Liberal Party have a policy of mandatory offshore detention for asylum seekers arriving by boat. So does the Labor Party. The Greens, however, eschew this policy. But someone who disagrees with this policy might still vote for the ALP over the Greens and Liberals, even if it’s their top priority for change.

Why? Because they may feel that given enough security in the ALP’s polling, given enough of what George W Bush called “political capital”, they might find the courage to change that policy and accept a possible drop in support. Would I do this? Hah no. Do I see the logic? Sure. Really, it’s a matter of faith, and that faith comes from knowledge of the people in the ALP, its roots in the union movement, and private interactions with representatives. Not everyone will have that faith. You can’t really argue about it beyond a certain point. It’s faith.

The Greens have a decent science policy, and talk a good game about science in general, but so many of their other policies seem to be informed by a completely different world view — so I still don’t really trust them on it. There’s not much room for argument there; either you see it or you don’t.

You know when else a vote is based on a huge degree of faith? When you’re voting for a new party. Intricately detailed ideas about charter cities and research funding structures are not going to give me any guidance on this. It’s a waste of space that could be taken up with more detailed policies on bigger issues. Or examples of work in the community they’ve done. Or achievements in advocating what they believe in. Or any number of other things.

Every detail written down in your policy is nothing more than another kind of campaign slogan. You are not saying, “this is the world we plan to construct.” You’re telling voters: “have faith in us because in researching this detail, this little policy detail that you’re reading now, we consulted with people who share your priorities and we want to represent them. We had to find out what was important to them, and therefore we had to see it as important ourselves. This policy demonstrates the effort we have and will put in, and the empathy we have for your situation.”

When I vote in our upcoming election, it will be based on an unquantifiable mix of policy, principles, gut feeling and faith. But the big revelation for me was that I always did that anyway. It’s just that now I’m honest with myself about it.