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Searching for Political Wisdom

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Wilson
August 27, 2018

I’ve been conducting a personal search for political wisdom since I was an undergraduate in the 1960s. In all these years, I’ve come across one sentence of political wisdom.

That sentence was spoken by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who said: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Horatio was confronted with Hamlet’s tale of ghosts, while those who search for political wisdom are confronted with the boundless complexities, vagaries and unpredictability of human behavior. No matter. When it comes to human behavior, there are more things in heaven and earth than anyone can apprehend.

Political ideologies and persuasions provide, at most, tidbits of information about the people who hold them. No one’s personhood can be adequately defined in political terms alone. Moreover, even the most ideologically devoted partisans hold views on individual subjects that are at variance with their larger ideological persuasions. (Conservative icon Bill Kristol recently said that Donald Trump was bringing out his “inner liberal.”) While it may be reasonable to draw a limited number of inferences about those who declare themselves for one ideology or another, care must be taken not to draw too many or take them too far.

If political ideologies and viewpoints are of limited utility in terms of informing about those who hold them, they are of no utility in terms of informing about the world. Political viewpoints serve instead as filters for contemplating the world. The application of these filters admits information compatible with one’s views and rejects incompatible information.

The information-filtering nature of our political views causes those views to be self-reinforcing. We see that which confirms our already held views and we don’t see that which is contrary. This is why it takes mighty and momentous wallops of incompatible information to persuade us to alter our views even a little. We greatly prefer to reject information that doesn’t fit our opinions than to alter our opinions.

It is evident, then, that the search for political wisdom must contend with two hugely problematic facts. The first is that there is an infinite quantity of available political information. The second is that it is impossible to select and assess even the tiniest portions of the available information without prejudice. Selected information is the only kind available for consideration.

Another way to put it is to say that a politically wise man would recognize that he is more ignorant than informed, more prejudiced than objective, in possession of limited intellectual abilities and constrained by his own education and experience. In short, anyone who claims to be politically wise is obviously a fool.

 

It is built into the nature of things that political wisdom is unattainable. The notion is an oxymoron. There are not just more things than are dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy, but more things than can be dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy.

If we can’t be wise, we can at least aspire not to be foolish. Consider what not foolish observers of the human condition in general, and of political affairs in particular, might observe.

Not foolish observers would recognize and accept that the information they possess is filtered and partial, which renders opinions based on that information filtered and partial. Not foolish observers would recognize that the information everyone else possesses is also filtered and partial. Given these truths, not foolish observers would recognize that most of us are, necessarily, wrong about most things most of the time. Accordingly, not foolish observers know that they must always and forever be in learning mode, because being learned is impossible.

Not foolish observers would look to the human experience for guidance, not to political ideologies and perspectives, because the human experience is large and varied and ideologies and perspectives are small and invariable. Not foolish observers would resist the temptation to craft political axioms of any kind, knowing in advance that each one will prove inadequate.

Unfortunately, intellectual honesty about political ideology and opinion is manifestly unwelcome in the real world. We regard ideological fealty and unchanging opinions as signs of commitment and expertise. We regard willingness to modify in the face of complexity and uncertainty as weakness. We demand that our politicians know exactly how to solve every problem and who to blame for each one too. We would never tolerate politicians who admitted the need to learn more about anything. We replace politicians who hesitate, much less express uncertainty, with others who don’t.

Those who seek political office are therefore obliged to peddle unwavering confidence, certainty and commitment, which is the same thing as peddling foolishness. Not foolish voters, knowing foolishness when they see and hear it, would prefer honesty, but must settle for candidates who have the wisdom to hint, here and there, that they don’t believe in all the positions they are obliged to take and the things they are obliged to say.


Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management, Melvin & Leigh, Publishers, Irvine, California, 2016. Mr. Wilson is also a columnist for PA Times and Governing.com. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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