02 September 2021

Should politicians be qualified to be members of parliament?


Should politicians be qualified to be members of parliament?

(Short: Qualified parliamentarians)

Topic by Sara

Essay by Lawrence


Our question is a popular idea at times of political crisis or turmoil. The idea is not to question the actions and behaviours of parliamentarians, but rather their intellectual ability to do their job well. If only parliamentarians were trained and knowledgeable in running the country, the argument goes, then the quality of legislating for the good of the country would be much better and more equitable.


This subject, unfortunately, has two issues. The first is that the idea of a qualification somehow guarantees skills and behaviour, especially morally sound actions, thus justifying their authority. A qualification does not logically lead to moral competence. This is a form of argument from authority or argument from status. The second problem is that there is no reason to suppose that just because someone is qualified in some discipline, they will always act morally or in the interest of the country. Many might, but not because they have some sort of qualification. There is absolutely no reason to assume that qualification is a sufficient condition to act morally.


The argument from authority works in two ways. The first and legitimate way of argument from authority is that for all the parties involved agree in advance that the said authority is a prima facie legitimate expert on a subject. Thus we can accept as true or acceptable the opinion of these expert people. We do this every day in our life: we ask an IT engineer about a problem on our computer, a Medical Doctor about some symptom or a car mechanic about a problem in our car.


Many times this system works, because most of the problems in such situations are straight forward and minor. But because an expert can solve a seemingly minor problem it does not follow that an expert alone can solve all problems: this is supported by the inductive argument that what is does not necessarily lead to what ought to be.


The other aspect of the argument from authority is that an expert’s opinion is not sufficient to establish the validity of an argument. For example many arguments might depend on the input of different experts and maybe experts at different times. This scepticism might make life very difficult or complex and may make life just unmanageable. The dilemma stems from the two situations where on the one extreme we take the opinion of the expert as a fact and the other extreme the opinion of the expert is not good enough.


In reality members of parliament do go through a process of qualification but it is not so stringent that the average voting citizen would not qualify. Then there is the argument what kind of qualification should a prospective member of parliament have to qualify. Would this qualification be a civil service type of exam, or a driving license type exam, a university degree?


We have no reason to assume that a qualified parliamentarian might not be subjected to the failure of the argument from authority. But there is another type of failure: basically the belief that an opinion of an expert is equivalent to a fact, being a scientific fact or a fact that can be demonstrated to be the case. In an emotionally charged environment such as politics and elections a qualification would make no difference in believing the propaganda of our favourite parliamentarian. In effect adding another qualification for politicians will not change any political turmoil but might exclude honest and prospective hard working parliamentarians.


The question we should be asking ourselves is what causes parliamentarians not to act in the interest of the country? Or to pose a philosophical question: what causes a member of parliament not to act morally? The answer to this question can be split in two parts. The first is failure of constitutional safeguards and means for citizens to hold parliamentarians directly accountable for their actions. This usually, might result in voters not participating in elections, or even worse, arguing that their vote makes no difference. In a way, failure to hold parliamentarians accountable in real time, just simply puts voters off political engagement. And a lack voter participation throughout the electoral mandate is the worst type of behaviour that makes it easy for members of parliament not to act morally.


The second part is that party peer pressure is incompatible with the duties of parliamentarians who are precisely to act in the interest of the state and not the party or worse some party donors. Basically, political parties do not belong in the environment of parliament since parliament represents the country, and parties represent tribal interests. This would be equivalent to giving the house pet a say in what the family should have for Sunday lunch. Members of parliament should be held personally accountable for their actions in parliament and the way to achieve this is either to exclude political party groupings or have secret votes in parliament.


In many democracies this one sided environment is mitigated by a number of instruments to balance fairness and justice, or at least give the impression of balancing the abuse of power. An independent and honourable judicial system is an effective way to hold parliamentarians to account. Another means of holding members of parliament accountable are the various committees in parliament whose function is to oversee the work of ministers, departments, and others who hold offices of power. Unfortunately, these can be as effective as the members of the committees who are themselves members of parliament and political parties.


The press and media were supposed to hold people in power accountable for their actions. Today those media that should perform this traditional function of accountability are few in number and certainly not well funded. Finally, many democracies organise many agencies to oversee many sectors in society such as data protection, the media, utilities, and so on. But what all these organisations have in common is that they are mainly passive: people have to go to them with their story or grievances. Of course, many investigative journalists do expose inequities or agencies do take action if they have the power to do so such as the electoral commission.


The traditional safeguards of democracy were always, an independent judiciary, accountability of government, a constitutional mechanism to protect rights, and a free press. But this is a 19th century and early twentieth century mind set. In the twenty first century politics is done at an international level. And one of the downside of international politics is that it lets in influences from other countries and from organisations who can buy their way to influence national parliamentarians. The full demise of the United Kingdom demonstrates the perfect storm of international interference, absolute corruption by members of parliament and party members and incompetence of a kind never seen in a civilized country before.



Best and take care



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