Sun, May 13, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Gauging the political temperature

By Wang Li-Sheng 王立昇

I was pleased to hear that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said at a meeting of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Central Standing Committee several days ago that he wanted his legacy to be about the happiness of the general populace. The government is making changes to its policy on electricity rate hikes, saying it would now delay the increases and introduce them in stages, having taken note of public opinion and the potential effects of the policy on people’s standard of living. This is to be commended. However, if the KMT wants history to judge its next four years in office favorably, in terms of what it has done to promote happiness, it needs to come up with an effective strategy. One framework it could consider is that of “adaptive politics.”

There is a strategy within control theory called “adaptive control” — applied in systems such as satellites, airplanes, robots and air conditioners — in which the controller makes changes and adjustments depending on the conditions of the current environment. In this way, the controller achieves the optimal situation for those conditions. The device is fitted with various sensors that feed it information about the environment and the effects of the adjustments it has made.

For example, an air conditioner has a thermostat comprised of a condenser that makes adjustments based on feedback from heat sensors, regulating the outflow of air. The interaction between the controller and the sensor feedback allows the creation of a closed-loop system. Early air conditioners lacked thermostats, and once the condenser was running it would just keep going, in what is known as an open-loop system. The difference between the open-loop and the closed-loop systems is the ability to adapt to the prevailing environmental conditions to achieve the optimal result.

I am not a political scientist, but adaptive control theory could be usefully applied to the act of governing a country. Republic of China founder Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) himself said politics was about controlling the masses. After a political directive is given, does one just soldier on, resistant to any change? If so, one is acting like an open loop, or what might be called a non-responsive government, an administration unable to adapt to local conditions, which in this case would be the wishes of the public.

In order to make the public content, a government must be sensitive to its needs, to understand what life is like for ordinary people and whether they are happy. How can a government be sensitive to the public’s needs? Perhaps the most reliable method is to pay attention to election results, such as the recent one in Lugang Township (鹿港) in Changhua County, and then gauge the reactions of the people, public organizations and of the various opinion polls. The government could also formulate a so-called “happiness index.” However, the most direct way is for government officials to go out and spend some time among their electorate. I think a lot can be said for Ma’s “long stay” initiative, for example.

Armed with sensitivity to what the public is feeling when making policy adjustments would mean a government was operating as a dynamic closed-loop system. This could be termed “adaptive politics,” meaning the ability to control the masses through the capacity to make adjustments in response to environmental changes. If the correct changes were made, the public would become more content with their circumstances.

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