The problem with election campaigns – the really deep problem, behind all the superficial ones, such as not being able to avoid regularly viewing images of David Cameron’s face – is that voters want impossible combinations of things. Even when a democratic system isn’t corrupted by big business or a partisan press; even when voters don’t believe wildly inaccurate things about the scale of immigration, or the size of foreign aid; even when the politicians involved aren’t scoundrels whose very hunger for power means they’re precisely the kind of people who shouldn’t get anywhere near it… even in such perfect conditions, voters would still want both a) great public services and b) not to have to pay for them.
Or more houses, but also no building on the green belt. Or economic growth, without the environmental consequences. Or super-strict border controls, andalso plentiful cheap foreign labour. And when voters demand the impossible, it’s a rare politician who can resist responding, “Why, certainly”.
An election campaign, then, is an ideal opportunity to witness on a grand scale one of the most basic pitfalls of human psychology: how far we’ll go to avoid confronting the inevitability of trade-offs. Faced with a tough choice between mutually exclusive options, we’ll often opt for neither, preferring instead the short-term comforts of pretending we don’t have to make it.
(This isn’t a party-political point, by the way: pro-austerity politicians talk more about “tough choices”, but they’re as guilty as anyone else.) In the ethereal world of political promises and voters’ dreams, anything’s possible; in the all-too-material world of limited money, time and other resources, there’s always an “opportunity cost”: using them to do one thing means not using them to do something else. Obvious? Maybe, but it’s striking how frequently we forget. It might not be an overstatement to say, with the US economist Thomas Sowell, that there are no such things as “solutions” at all, only trade-offs.
I won’t be holding my breath for party leaders to acknowledge any of this in public. But the problem afflicts the personal sphere, too – and there, appreciating the truth of Sowell’s words can come as a kind of epiphany. As the business writer Greg McKeown points out, questions such as, “How can I fit everything I want to do into my schedule?” are fundamentally dishonest: they’re based on the false premise that trade-offs are avoidable. The honest question is: which problems do you want to have? Likewise, in career choices, romance or anything else, you’re never truly “keeping your options open”, strictly speaking; what you’re really doing is sacrificing one thing (the benefits of a firm decision) for another (the benefits of no firm decision – including avoiding uncomfortable emotions).
None of which is half as depressing as it sounds. Actually, it’s liberating: knowing you can’t possibly have everything, or get everything done, spares you the anxiety of trying to figure out how you could. To spend time or effort on anything is, by definition, to choose not to spend that time or effort on an infinite number of alternatives. Which is worth remembering next time you’re ploughing bravely on through a novel you can’t stand. Or looking at pictures of David Cameron’s face.