Sunday, 4 October 2015

The nirvana fallacy, Denis Healey, and "Toy Town Trot" Jeremy Corbyn

So, farewell then, Denis Healey. Not my favourite politician, but at least he reduced the deficit and got public spending under control as chancellor when Britain was the “sick man of Europe” - albeit after the IMF had gone medieval on his ass. But I’ve never forgotten his disgusting attack on Mrs. Thatcher for supposedly “wrapping herself in the Union Jack” and “glorying in slaughter” after British Marines had retaken South Georgia. Looking back, he was probably suffering severe psychological stress at the time, given that, although he was a confirmed Trans-Atlanticist and a keen proponent of Britain retaining its nuclear weapons, he had somehow ended up as deputy leader of a party that hated America and was determined to leave this country undefended against the threat of a Soviet attack. Can’t have been comfortable.

Just as it can’t have been comfortable in the final weeks of his long life to contemplate the triumph of the Labour Left against which Healey had fought such a protracted and bruising battle. That must have been hard for a patriot with an impressive war record to stomach. Given Healey’s struggle against what he termed “Toy Town Trots”, it’s amusing to imagine the horrific levels of GBH  the 1979 version of Healey would have committed on the shell-suited cyclist who currently “leads” the Labour Party. Because, whatever Healey was, he was a realist: he may not have been right about many things, but - unlike Jeremy Corbyn and his ghastly ilk - he inhabited the real world, where intelligent adults soon realise that the only way of solving problems and making things better usually involves choosing the least worst alternative.

The New Statesman, a publication which I have assiduously avoided ever since leaving BBC Westminster in 1997, has this week published a splendid article by Ian Leslie entitled “Jeremy Corbyn and the nirvana fallacy” which perfectly encapsulates why grown-ups find it so frustrating to listen to left-wingers responding to questions about difficult issues. Would you use nuclear weapons? No, because there shouldn’t be any nuclear weapons. Should we intervene in Syria? No, because we want peace in the middle east. What raises our blood pressure in this sort of example (and Corbyn pretty much only ever responds to knotty issues in this manner) is, apparently, the nirvana fallacy:
In a paper from 1969, the American economist Harold Demsetz distinguished between two approaches to public policy: the “nirvana” approach, and the “comparative institution” approach. The former presents the choice as between an ideal norm and the imperfect existing arrangement; the latter as between alternative, real world arrangements, imperfect and less imperfect. 
This is colloquially known as the “nirvana fallacy”: the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a problem. A politician who uses the nirvana fallacy gains an easy rhetorical advantage. He can paint inspiring pictures of his perfect world, and attack the existing state of affairs for not living up to it. He can accuse anyone who doesn’t accept its plausibility as cynical, lacking in vision, or principle. 
But this advantage comes at a cost, because the nirvana fallacy makes you stupid. It stops you from doing the hard, gritty thinking about how to improve the world we have, since, faced with a series of complex, imperfect options, you overleap them to reach the sunlit uplands of an ideal scenario. Soon, you forget how to think about the real world at all. 
Should we be making hard choices about public spending? No, because we want a high-growth economy in which only the rich pay more tax. Should we reform the way in which the NHS allocates resources, or schools are run? No, because we want a country in which everyone, regardless of background, receives the best healthcare and education, for free. Thank you for the applause, comrades.
Corbyn demonstrated his penchant for nirvana fallacy thinking recently when addressing a Friends of Israel meeting at last week’s Labour conference, where he stated: “I want us to be a party for peace and progress in the Middle East by linking up with all those groups that want peace and progress.” Because, you see, Hamas and Hezbollah are groups committed to peace and progress, and, as we all know, other mainstream political parties in Britain want more war and death and failure and misery in the region, presumably because other parties are evil or mad or both. One striking feature of Corbyn’s address (apart from the usual idiocies) was the fact that he managed not to utter the word “Israel” once, and was heckled for his bizarre omission. In the ideal world Corbyn wants to inhabit (and, in some ways, already does) Israel wouldn’t exist - and it it wasn’t there, Muslims would have no reason to slaughter each other, or us.

Life must be very simple for those who think this way - and, of course, those who do tend to be very simple.

You can read the whole of Ian Leslie’s splendid article here.


  1. I thought that New Statesman article was pretty special too. Nothing I did not know already in the abstract but nice to put a name to the condition.

    1. Agreed, gogilesgo - it provides a handy mental short-cut whenever we encounter the behaviour/attitude/trick described.

  2. Yes, great to be able to put a name to it, even if it is an informal fallacy. I've been grasping at the idea in recent scribblings.