Perhaps if more young people were taught how the political system that shapes their lives actually works, then authoritarian threats to liberal democracy might become less attractive, writes Bob Gregory 

Many of the people who took part in the illegal occupation of Parliament and nearby premises and streets were clearly ignorant about how New Zealand’s political system works, its underlying constitutional arrangements, and the importance of the rule of law. Now it has been reported that a group of ‘protesters’ gathered at the gates of Government House in Wellington to demand the Governor-General dissolve Parliament, as if she would do so unilaterally and not on the advice of the Prime Minister.

And for what purpose? To hold another general election? To abolish Parliament altogether? To allow the Government to be replaced by someone of the protesters’ choosing? Maybe they wish to see Speaker Trevor Mallard water down all parliamentary procedure to the point where the institution becomes a game of musical chairs?

It is, however, a serious matter that the level of political and constitutional understanding in Aotearoa New Zealand and in other liberal democracies with which we compare ourselves, is not what it should be. So what could be done?  

For many years, there have been calls to teach ‘civics’ in primary and secondary schools, presumably to impart increasingly sophisticated knowledge to young people as they grow through their years at school.

These calls have been received cautiously by education authorities on the grounds that such teachings could easily result in too much political disagreement and argumentation, which would distract students from their studies of other subjects – maths, history, art, commerce, and so on – all considered to be perfectly legitimate and politically non-controversial.

The term ‘civics’ disguises the fact that any sensible and realistic study of political and constitutional arrangements must acquaint students with the inevitability of political conflict.

This does not necessarily mean partisan politics – the quest for power by competing groups and parties – but conflicts among a plurality of values, interests, and perspectives, all of which lie at the heart of politics. In other words, learning about political conflict should not be seen as any sort of a threat to society, but rather as an essential element of society. The term civics itself is too timorous, as if politics can be taught without really teaching politics.

So in schools we teach a subject such as economics, mostly neoclassical economics, because it is believed that in the modern world young people should have the chance to acquaint themselves with the rudiments of a discipline that not only can offer multiple career paths, but which also directly shapes their lives. Both justifications are undoubtedly reasonable and beguiling to those who may not be interested in politics but are unaware that politics is most decidedly interested in them.

Politics – as much if not more so than economics – shapes their lives, day in, day out. As someone has rightly pointed out, the only place on Earth without politics was Robinson Crusoe’s island before he discovered Friday.

The argument that politics is inherently conflictual while economics is not is also palpably false. Economics is about the distribution of wealth and income in society, which is determined by the exercise of political power. So there are two types of politics, overt and covert politics. The former is just called politics; the latter is usually called economics.

Despite the quest by economics to emulate the physical sciences through the development of econometrics, virtually all economic theorising is, when examined closely, a form of political theorising, shaped by perspectives that are inherently ideological.  

Perhaps if people were taught at a young age more about how the political system that shapes their lives actually works, then authoritarian threats to liberal democracy (itself a politically contested idea) might become less attractive.

A certain irony lies at the heart of this issue: the likelihood of political conflict of the kind seen at Parliament, involving the coercive use of state power, will become greater the less the levels of political education; the more the state has to invoke such power, the less of a liberal democracy that state will become.

Emeritus Professor Bob Gregory is in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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