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Philip C. Bobbitt

  • Distinguished Senior Lecturer

Power lies in uncertainties

Britain – not just Tony Blair – will be weakened if he is forced to name his departure date in advance

by Philip Bobbitt
Monday May 15, 2006
The Guardian

Like most Americans, I am a big fan of Tony Blair. So much so, in fact, that I hesitate even to disclose this fact, since it is unlikely to win him much support in the UK (for one thing, why would you trust the opinion of someone whose own political process has given George Bush and Dick Cheney two terms in the White House?). But Americans – and most everyone else – have a stake in stable British leadership precisely because, with the exception of Angela Merkel, the political heads of the leading Nato countries are all in a rather precarious state, which is why it is particularly disturbing to hear calls for the prime minister to set a certain date when he will step down. The reason this is such a very bad idea has a lot to do with the human element in politics, which is often hard to pin down but is potent nevertheless.

Inspiration and vision are, of course, great motivators, but among professional politicians, in every country, there is nothing like fear to command cooperation. That is because we seem to have a natural bias in assessing affairs that leads us to over-value the possibility of loss.

Consider the well-known study where subjects are asked to choose between two alternatives: the first is a 100% chance of losing $50, and the second a 25% chance of losing $200, and a 75% chance of losing nothing. As a rational matter, the two alternatives are indistinguishable. We would expect that about 50% of those tested would choose each one. In fact, many studies have confirmed that approximately 80% of people prefer the second alternative. That is, they prefer to risk a chance of losing more money if they have a good chance of losing no money at all.

If Tony Blair sets a date, he will be showered with praise from all quarters, and that will no doubt be gratifying. But the influence the UK will have in international affairs, to say nothing of the influence the prime minister will be able to wield in parliament – especially in his own party, by the way – will greatly diminish. There will be less worry that displeasing him will lead to retribution; and everyone will have to worry that going along with him will certainly lead to retaliation by those who follow in his role. Those who oppose his policies will be emboldened, even if irrationally so, because there is now a chance they will not be punished.

A similar bias in human calculation works in the opposite direction to win consent when the prime minister does not set a certain time limit on his office. Suppose subjects are given these two alternatives: (a) pay $10 to ensure that one won't lose $10,000 even though the chance of loss is 0.1% or (b) keep the $10 and accept a 0.1% risk of losing $10,000. Despite the fact that both have precisely the same expected value, over 80% of those surveyed will choose option (a), which is in fact a certain loss. In politics, this leads individuals and states to go along with the proposals of a leader who, because his term is indefinite, may have the power to frustrate recalcitrant partners in the future.

If the British want to decapitate their leadership (I am speaking figuratively) that is their affair. Whatever you do, however, do not create a lengthy interregnum by demanding that the prime minister say precisely when he will leave a post to which, after all, he was elected, sacrificing policies to which he and the country are committed. In the United States, we used to inaugurate our president in the spring after a November election but we learned the costs of doing so, and changed our inaugural calendar to move up the date on which the new president took power. In this, as perhaps in other things, the old country can learn from the mistakes of the new.

— Philip Bobbitt holds a chair in constitutional law at the University of Texas and was a director at the US National Security Council under Bill Clinton

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Philip C. Bobbitt

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