"I could recite you the statistics: The lowest inflation, mortgage rates,
and unemployment for decades. The best ever school results, with over 60,000
more 11 year olds every year now reaching required standards in English and
Maths. Cardiac deaths down 19 per cent since 1997, cancer deaths 9 per cent.
Burglaries down 39 per cent."
Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference speech, 30 September 2003
What do you want from your government? Many would say, chiefly: security, the
efficient management of the economy and the delivery of public services. What
then can a government do to defend its record other than list the ways it has
delivered? This is what Tony Blair did in his speech
to this year’s Labour Party conference.
Of course, the speech would have left out any statistics that did not show
the government in a good light. The
Conservatives claim, for example, that average waits for an operation on
the National Health Service have increased from 90 to 96 days over the past
three years and that the number of beds in English hospitals has fallen by 10,000
since Labour came to power.
But even the statistics that Blair did cite don’t necessarily provide evidence
of good governance. Labour surely does deserve some credit for the low mortgage,
inflation and unemployment rates. Although the ‘best ever school results’ could
possibly be the result of more lenient marking, it also seems fair to attribute
at least some of the improvements to government policy. But elsewhere, is Blair
guilty of taking undeserved credit for improvements that would have happened
anyway, or are actually signs of poor performance?
It certainly looks like it. Take the reduction in cancer deaths. The fact is
that the long-term trend throughout the developing world is for such a reduction
and Britain’s 9% drop is only in line with European averages. (see this
BBC news item or very detailed stats here
to put the UK figures in perspective.) So the UK government has only been performing
at best averagely, and arguably has had little direct control over the long
to medium term trends at all.
It’s a similar story with cardiac deaths. The British
Heart Foundation reports that "while the death rate has been falling
in the UK, it has not been falling as fast as in some other countries."
Even in the case of crime it is hard to disentangle the effects of government
policy from factors outside its control, such as demography. For example, the
higher the proportion of young men in the population, the higher crime rates
tend to be.
Blair is only doing what politicians of all stripes have always done. If something
good happens while they are in power, they try to take credit for it. (Conversely,
if something bad happens they try to show it was not their fault.) The implicit
non sequitur is "if something good happens while I’m in charge, it is because
of my actions."
As a rhetorical move it can be effective, partly because humans instinctively
understand the world as operating according to causal principles and, as David
Hume argued, it’s a good job that we do. After all, we only ever directly observe
conjunctions of events, not the causal links between them. Our minds thus have
to fill in the gaps if we are to understand the world causally at all. But the
downside of this is that we can easily mistake non-causal conjunctions for causal
ones. Success under a certain regime is thus easily mistaken for success because
of a regime.
Unfairly taking the credit (or the blame) in such manner is not restricted
to the political sphere. Consider the implied causal claims in the following:
"Since we’ve been married, your career has shot ahead, while mine has stagnated."
Or, "There has not been a single fatality in this factory all the time
I’ve been the manager." Or how about, "The man who won five of the
six major championships played between August 1999 and April 2001 with Titleist
equipment has won only two of the last seven, and none of the last five, with
the Nike driver in the bag." That man is Tiger
It is not that we know Blair’s government deserves no credit for improved health
stats or that the Nike clubs are just an excuse for Woods’ slump. It’s just
that in both cases credit or blame is being dished out on the basis of a causal
link that just hasn’t been established.
See also Post