Politicians and the God Complex: Voting for someone without all the answers

Would you vote for a politician who told you they didn’t have all the answers? After watching Tim Hartford’s TED Talk on ‘The God Complex’, perhaps you might be more willing to consider it. But if ‘trial and error’ is a better policy alternative, why isn’t it more popular with politicians?

Tim Hartford argues that in our incredibly complex world, one has to have a God Complex to be ‘absolutely convinced’ they know how the world works. Likewise, someone who believes their particular solution to a problem is ‘infallibly right’ is kidding themselves. Hartford claims the best process for solving our problems is actually through trial and error.

So when it comes to rolling out a nationwide policy, especially something long lasting and very expensive, what should we do? Do we trust our political leaders, infallible and God-like, to declare the right solution? Or do we create an environment where polices and solutions can evolve through trial and error?

Time for more trial and error in Australia

In Australia, some big policies and projects are making use of trials.

The National Disability Insurance scheme (NDIS) is being undertaken as a progressive roll out. The NDIS will initially launch in four locations to “test key design features and inform the scale and pace of the expansion to a full scheme.”

The National Broadband Network (NBN) was initially trialed in Tasmania, with further trials conducted at a range of mainland Australian sites.

It’s commendable that such large endeavours are making use of trials. However both these projects appear to only be testing aspects of implementation, not whether the projects should proceed to completion. In both cases, the government has already declared these projects will go ahead, with many aspects (like the technology mix of the NBN) determined in advance.

Shouldn’t we also be using trials to assess whether these projects should actually proceed past the trial phase?


Changing our media and political culture

So why don’t we see more politicians campaigning on a broader ‘trial and error’ platform?

I think there’s two reasons:

  • Our political and media culture reinforces the God Complex
  • Policy change is seen as failure

Tim Hartford passionately believes we should support politicians who acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. He argues we should be prepared to consider politicians honest enough to admit many of their ideas will fail.

When a politician stands up campaigning for elected office and says,

“I want to fix our health system. I want to fix our education system. I have no idea how to do it. I have half a dozen ideas. We’re going to test them out. They’ll probably all fail. Then we’ll test some other ideas out. We’ll find some that work. We’ll build on those. We’ll get rid of the ones that don’t.” —

When a politician campaigns on that platform, and more importantly, when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician, then I will admit that it is obvious that trial and error works, and that — thank you. Until then, until then I’m going to keep banging on about trial and error and why we should abandon the God complex. – Tim HartfordTrial, Error and the God Complex

Presently our traditional media, new media and social media, all stand ready to tear down any politician who isn’t perfectly polished. In such a climate, is it any wonder then we don’t see any Hartford style politician’s saying ” I have no idea how to do it. I have half a dozen ideas.”

And what if a politician actually changed their policies based on trial results? When the default  language for policy change is ‘backflip’, changing course is made incredibly difficult. Just consider how long it took for the ALP to abandon its proposed Internet filter.

Moving to a trial and learn in our political sphere would require a huge mind-shift on the part of our politicians, the media and the electorate.

But arguably it’s a shift we should consider making.


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