‘Places can’t stand open’

David Runciman “In politics there’s a constant endeavour to expose hypocrisy. Because people don’t like hypocrisy, it’s a very useful weapon to attack an opponent. But the exposure of hypocrisy – the anti-hypocritical movement – doesn’t drive hypocrisy out of politics. It doesn’t even diminish the amount of hypocrisy that there is. If anything it just increases it.”

I was in Cambridge last week to interview David Runciman about his new book, Political Hypocrisy, for Princeton University Press. You can listen to the PUP podcast by clicking here (for iTunes) or here (for PUP site).

The title of this post is a quote from one of the people David discusses in his book, the eighteenth-century writer, Bernard Mandeville, author of The Fable of the Bees, which was thought by his contemporaries to be one of the wickedest books of his day on account of the cool eye with which its author regards the hypocrisy of his time.

Political Hypocrisy coverAccording to Mandeville, the difficulty of waiting for politicians to come along who bear not the slightest taint of hypocrisy, is that ‘in the meantime the Places can’t stand open, and the offices must be filled with such as you can get.’ In other words, being a politician may be a tough job, and the ones we get may be far from perfect, but someone‘s got to do it.

David Runciman’s book is an intelligent and carefully argued account of how thinkers as diverse as Hobbes, Orwell and Anthony Trollope have reflected on the in-built hypocrisies in our liberal democratic tradition. What he describes is political system with many more shades than just black and white, in which a dose of hypocrisy may turn out to be a lesser evil than some of the alternatives.

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