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Everyday Philosophy: Why we should be wary of political metaphors

'Cutting the red tape' was always an easy message to sell. But, philosopher NIGEL WARBURTON warns us not to get beguiled by the imagery of political rhetoric

A truck drives past Downing Street with a message that reads "Brexit carnage!" in a protest action by Scottish fishermen against post-Brexit red tape and coronavirus restrictions, which they say could threaten the future of the industry. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

“Cutting the red tape” sounds like a good idea. Bureaucrats used to tie bundles of important papers with red tape to signal the urgency of dealing with them. That’s where the term originated.

Now, of course, it means excessive bureaucracy that causes delays or makes some kinds of businesses hard to run.

Cutting red tape is the political equivalent of Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity, a principle much used, but not invented, by the 14th Century Franciscan, William of Ockham. Sometimes described by philosophers as “a principle of conceptual parsimony”, it is at heart not much more complicated than saying “keep it simple, stupid”. Don’t assume that an alien spaceship landed, and little green Martians stole the milk from the fridge when it’s more likely your flatmate used it.

Where there’s a simpler explanation, which introduces fewer elements, go for that. It’s likely to be more streamlined too.

Why not do the same with complex legislation? Why not tear up the rule books, to use another metaphor? If we don’t need the rules, we should get rid of them and get by with fewer, much simpler ones. The person who cuts red tape is the hero who with a snip liberates us from all that unnecessary paperwork and irksome form-filling.

It seems so simple. That’s the rhetorical power of this image. What’s not to like? The politician cutting through the tape and letting the papers blow away in the wind doesn’t literally wield a pair of scissors any more than someone using Occam’s razor has a blade.

But the choice of the phrase implies that at a stroke we could cut through whatever it is that is holding us back or overcomplicating things. It’s swift, it’s easy, and it’s liberating.

Occam’s razor is a heuristic, a handy rule to guide us. It’s popular with philosophers and with scientists. There is no guarantee that the simplest explanation of something is the true one, but that seems more likely.

Perhaps we could adopt an analogous red-tape-cutting heuristic: don’t multiply rules beyond necessity. Having fewer simpler rules would be more elegant, and presumably more efficient, wouldn’t it?

The answer is: it depends on what you mean by “beyond necessity”. By being rather vague about the red tape they intend to cut, Tory politicians may be creating a smokescreen (to mix metaphors) because some of the rules they want to cut because they believe they are barriers to business could be the very rules that protect workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers, and in that sense, they could be necessary.

If so, a different image, an apt one in the weeks of the Winter Olympics, would be more appropriate, though it’s not one Johnson and co. are likely to reach for in a hurry. We need to see this not in terms of cutting red tape but of removing safety barriers, shredding them to make life easier for some businesses.

Most people on a ski slope are very pleased that there are barriers that keep them away from dangerous areas and of accidentally going off-piste. Removing protective measures puts everyone on that slope at risk, though some much more than others.

Without those barriers, almost inevitably, some people will go over the edge. Put that way it doesn’t seem such a great idea.

While we’re on the subject of skiing metaphors, what about the much-used image of a slippery slope? Even though Johnson’s recent Jimmy Savile slur against Keir Starmer, and his subsequent refusal to apologise for it, was a misleading insinuation straight out of the fascist’s playbook, it doesn’t follow, as some have hinted, that we are sliding out of control on an icy descent with no chance of stopping before we reach the foot of the mountain and find ourselves in the Fourth Reich.

The slippery slope image implies that descent is swift, unstoppable, out of control. Start with a lie that slurs your opposite number in parliament and end up with neo-Nazis in power and a boot on your face. But that’s mostly rhetoric too.

As skiers know, even on double black diamond slopes you can swerve to a graceful stop with your skis pointing up the mountain if you are skilful enough, or at worst you can go into a snowplough to bring yourself to a halt, or even take a deliberate fall into soft snow.

Descent into fascism is far from inevitable. Just don’t get beguiled by imagery.

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