09 June 2017

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Should politicians be held responsible for what they say?

Dear friends,

This Saturday we are discussing: Should politicians be held responsible
for what they say?

I can only introduce this topic as being very challenging but also a
topic that will affect many of us in our life time, and certainly in the
life time of our children. I am sure in my mind that this is the
political topic of the future. In the meantime:

As I write one of the most important elections in the European Union is
being held in the UK. The next important election will be held in
Germany later on his year.

What makes the UK election important is that this election should never
have been held in the first place. The last elections were held in 2015.
This election is being held because in 2016 the government of the day
held a referendum asking for the opinion of the people whether the UK
should leave the EU.

There was a major problem with the referendum: this referendum was
advisory in nature and did not give the government or anyone else a
mandate to leave the EU. Those who followed the referendum were left in
no doubt that there was a concerted effort to influence people against
the EU. The result of the referendum was indeed interpreted by the
government and the leader of the opposition as a mandate to leave the EU.

So why is this introduction relevant to our topic? First of all, modern
society and modern economies function at the international scale; at the
global level. This is because today we are moving away from the
philosophy of division of labour and more towards division of
intellectual properties and know-how skills. Thus what a politician says
locally, today, it can easily have repercussions beyond the borders of a

And secondly, if the UK did leave the EU the repercussions do not only
affect the British people but also the other 435 million people within
the European Union. So if by false or distorted claims of some
politicians one ends up with losing 23% of one's wealth or lost one's
business wouldn't you want some sort of accountability?

The first issue should, therefore, be what we mean by "responsibility".
Responsibility can either be having control over others or in charge of
others. And also, accountability also means blame. For our purpose,
there is no doubt that by responsibility we mean accountability. And
accountability (blame) requires that we act intentionally and could have
acted otherwise. A politician who gives false or fabricated facts (not
lying) does so intentionally and could have done something about it.

The now classical case of the claim by the Leave campaign that Britain
sent 350million Pounds to the EU every week can easily illustrate my
point. This is not a case of lying but a case of false information;
although I agree with you that this claim needs further clarification.
Theoretically*, the UK would send this amount to the EU, but this is not
a figure paid every year, it does not include the rebate and other
grants the UK receives from the EU and most important of all there is a
difference between a membership fee and a financial commercial
transaction. If my calculations are correct etc etc I calculate the
theoretical payment of UK contribution to the EU (2016) as equivalent to
about 1% of the GDP. Should, therefore, a theoretical 1% of a country's
GDB, which is known to be false and reality costing mush less, be
allowed to influence the fate and life of 500,000,000 people?

Or to put this in a more everyday perspective: how much are you prepared
to allow thieves take money from your wallet or purse before you call
the police? Would you call the police if the thieves took 20% of your
saving which you have in the house?

So the context of our topic is should we hold politicians accountable,
as in a court of law, if they made false claims that eventually cost us
money or devalued our wealth? But there is a difference between holding
politicians responsible for what they say, and politicians really being
able to be held responsible for what they say?

It's one thing to accept that a butterfly fluttering its wings in China
can cause a Tornado in Texas; the question is would you hold the
butterfly responsible if the Tornado ripped off the roof of your
detached villa?

There is a difference, however, between, a politician saying for example
they will invest in affordable property then the country is hit by a
recession due to some events in some other country; as opposed to the
politician claiming they will introduce a programme to guarantee the
value of residential property and doesn't do it with the consequence
that many people lose a lot of money on the value of their residential

The idea that politicians cannot just say what they want is evident by
section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 in UK which
establishes the criminal office of making false statements about
election candidates. The actual law itself is quite complicated but what
we're interested in is the principle. And, what the law says and what
justice is are two separate issues. So here we have the establishment of
the principle that politicians cannot say what they want.

We now need to establish that politicians can be held responsible for
financial loss. (I must apologise at this point that I did not have time
to investigate this issue but I also do not need specific references for
my argument.) Today most jurisdictions accept that if someone starts
false rumours on social media to influence the stock market, or shares
of a company or a market, this action can be interpreted as being a
criminal act. So someone can be held responsible for someone else's
financial loss even if they do not know the victim or whether they are
involved in giving financial advice or not. So in my example above
should a family, have a case to take a politician to court for any loses
of money due to the devaluation of the price of their home because the
politician failed to do what they promised?

I agree that even the example I've just given need further
clarification, but the principle is clear. If we suffer catastrophic
(financial) loss because of what a politician says, should we be able to
seek redress in a court of law? The criminal principle already exists
for people in general.

And my third argument to justify the philosophical case that maybe
politicians can be held to account and do have a case to answer if what
they say affects our wealth. The question is, therefore, do politicians
owe the public/voters a duty of care about what they say and what do?

All questions about duty of care go back to the 1932 House of Lords case
from Scotland i.e. the Donoghue v Stevenson case (or the snail in the
bottle case). Basically a ginger beer company that let a bottle of their
drink with a snail in it enter the supply chain to the public was still
responsible and had a duty of care to the consumer who drank that ginger
beer even though the consumer did not have a legal contract with bottler
but the restaurant. This is why today we can return faulty goods to the
shop and expect our money back: this has nothing to do with the guarantee.

So here we have the principle that a) there is a duty of care even if
there isn't a direct contract/legal relationship between parties and b)
we are entitled to compensation when we suffer real loss. Needless to
say that this is complex legal territory, but what matters for us is
that societies do recognise the principle of duty of care that goes
beyond a moral obligation or altruistic action.

The Donoghue v Stevenson case establishes a moral obligation that can be
measured by empirical evidence. In a way this case is not so much about
money but about the dignity and respect of others. And this is
philosophy. The example about spreading false rumours to influence the
money markets is a modern example of demarcating free speech from
irresponsible speech, even if done as a joke. And free speech is
political philosophy?

To finish off, should politicians be held responsible for what they say
because they are politicians (this would probably be discrimination) or
because the position they hold imposes a duty of care to such an extent
that a failure to perform this duty can affect us catastrophically?

But irrespective of our political prejudice about politicians of being
crooks and corrupt, there is also one key factor that might also affect
our debate: many voters are really stupid and idiots.

Best Lawrence

* The UK's EU membership fee

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/

PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Should politicians
be held responsible for what they say?

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