If there was one stand out recommendation on the Hargreaves report on copyright in the UK, it’s that legislation should be made based on evidence, not belief. It sounds obvious, but with an ever-increasing swathe of issues, laws are written based on feelings, beliefs and opinions, rather than actual facts. So, the question is, when you start making laws based on beliefs, at what point are you a theocracy?
There seems to be little place for facts in western democracies these days. Sample some news from a major mainstream news source (in the format of your choice), and you’ll doubtless hear of some new law, or a lawmaker making a ‘statement’ of a position that needs to be taken. If you poke a bit deeper, you’ll tend to find that there are usually few facts supporting the position or law – in many cases the facts flat-out oppose the law.
It’s happening all over the world. In March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked of getting rid of nuclear power in Germany in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident. A month ago, she shut down 7 power plants, for a ‘safety review’. The incident she was reacting to, listed as one of the worst nuclear accidents ever, had one death (heart attack), 37 physical injuries, and two taken to hospital for radiation exposure and quickly released. This is a power plant hit by a Magnitude 9 earthquake, and a tsunami, and it was still kept safe. An oil refinery in a heavily populated area outside Tokyo burned for TEN DAYS, but there was little mention of that. Nuclear energy is the safest, cleanest and most ecologically sound reliable power source we have right now, according to the facts. However, belief says it’s dangerous, uncontrolled, and about to kill everyone on the planet within 6 months. Guess which one won out? It’s the same story in Italy, where nuclear power was abandoned by public referendum in 1987, shortly after Chernobyl. A position that was reaffirmed earlier this week, in the wake of Fukushima, and turned into a protest action against Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. No fact-based decision-making there, either.
The “War on Terror” has been another source of belief-based legislation. In the US, there’s the USA PATRIOT Act, which gives huge sweeping powers to law enforcement and government agencies. A huge boost in spending on scanners and toys, and a vast erosion of rights. None of it fact based. The body scanners are pretty ineffective, the TSA regularly fails its ‘red tests’ while groping everyone it can (unless you’re a celebrity, where they’ll make exceptions), including children. The liquids ban was based on a hypothetical threat, later discounted, but it’s still in force. Even the ugly shadow of terrorism is more about belief, than reality. You are more than 70x more likely to be murdered in the US, than be caught up in a terrorist incident, and twice as likely to be killed by the weather. Yet police funding is being cut, and police are working on more ‘anti-terrorism’ things.
Of course, the best example of this came during the recent USA Patriot Act provision extension, where it was rushed through with no debate and reauthorized for another few years, because ‘without it our safety would be jeopardized, and active investigations would have to be dropped.’ That’s the belief. The facts are, the provisions have been collectively used less than a handful of times in the past 10 years (so they’re hardly essential tools) and any investigations into actions that occurred before the provisions expired were free to use them still. The facts, plainly available to anyone that could read the bill in question, flat out contradicted the beliefs of those supporting the extension.
There’s a very good reason for this. Politics is all about perceptions. It’s not about being right, or honest any more. Exposed in a lie? Say you were mistaken, misquoted, you misspoke, you didn’t have all the facts, or simplest of all, blame it on a political opponent.
Western politics these days has managed to make lying stigma-free. Politicians are so distrusted and disliked by their electorate, that this sort of behaviour is expected. A honest politician doesn’t stand a chance in the governments of the world these days. And that’s a real problem, because when you’re ignoring facts and embracing beliefs, then issues will only get worse.
This is also why whistle-blowers are becoming so persecuted. Wikileaks is hated, because it exposes the claims of politicians as being beliefs, rather than facts, often by showing they knew that the facts showed something different to the belief.
Facts can be challenged, their basis questions, the values disputed. There’s no challenging beliefs, because they are a belief, and their only basis is that someone feels that way. Any fantasy-land belief can be turned into a real-world law, through the application of spin-doctors and lies. When the beliefs lack of realistic basis shows up in its consequences, do we get some humility, a ‘hey I was wrong, let’s fix this’? No. It’s more beliefs.
Belief is fine, in its place. That place is not in government. When you try to govern the real world, leave your fantasy world at home, and stick to the facts, and we can start dealing with problems, rather than creating more, which is all a theocracy tends to do.