Bryan Caplan  

Politicians: How Outraged Should You Be?

Public Opinion as a Political ... Meltzer on Financial Regulatio...

You all know what Brad DeLong thinks about George Bush. Well, that's what I think about politicians in general.

Even so, politicians almost never make me angry. I expect them to be atrocious, and I'm rarely disappointed. When I hear about the latest scandal, I often remember this passage from Moliere:

And it's no more a matter for disgust
That men are knavish, selfish, and unjust
Than that the vulture dines upon the dead
And wolves are furious, and apes ill-bred.
Now unlike Moliere's Philinte, I do think that human beings, politicians included, can do a lot better. My problem is that I've simply gotten used to the idea that they won't.

In contrast, my colleague Don Boudreaux has spent much of this election season crusading against politicians' inane statements and bad behavior (see here, here, here, and here for starters). And whenever I read Don's attacks on politicians, my emotional reaction is "You said it!" He's speaking truth to power, and it's a pleasure to spectate.

Even so, I'm not tempted to flatter Don with imitation. But perhaps I should be. What do you think?

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

Please God no. I loathe political discussions; nothing so quickly turns rational individuals into slavering two year olds. First thing you do is pick a team, then you start to make snide attacks on anyone not on that team, and hypocritical defenses of your allies, and all along your arguments just keep thinning and thinning until you're a global warming skeptic, or arguing that tax cuts raise revenues, or that there's a right to feticide in the Constitutional penumbra. You don't think it'll happen, but it will, it will.

I wrote a post all about this here.

Jared writes:

I disagree. The great thing about Boudreaux is that he's firing broadsides towards both parties, which is exactly what we need more of. I, for one, would love to see you jump into the fray, Dr. Caplan.

Garrett Schmitt writes:

My sense of what you could best do would be for you to explain why politicians' "inane statements and bad behavior" still seem to work. Or even why they are led to believe such nonsense works.

This is because, at the very least, we have to admit that many politicians give every appearance of being successful, actualized persons through the lens of their own displayed preferences. They get re-elected, have smiling families, occupy the upper levels of socio-economic status, and every once in a while--often enough to keep libertarians in a constant state of frustration--they get their pet projects enacted. Revealing what enables all of this, the accompanying inanity, and the complementary misbehavior is just as important as calling it out when it happens, as Don does.

Of course, you do a good deal of this already with good criticisms of mass democracy, voters, etc, so perhaps I'm just supporting your status quo.

mgroves writes:

What a great snippet of poetry!

Bryan Caplan writes:
mgroves writes:

What a great snippet of poetry!

It's from the Richard Wilbur translation of The Misanthrope. Every line is a jewel.

Moliere's a genius who everyone should be more familiar with (myself included).

I think the more people out there who are attacking all politicians for their idiocies, the better. Silence is no friend to either truth or justice.

FC writes:

Don't bother. As the Book of Genesis teaches, screwing up is inherent in the human condition.

Robert Scarth writes:

Imagine if Gallileo hadn't spoken up for heliocentrism.
Imagine if Darwin had kept silent because his ideas contradicted the bible.
Imagine if Martin Luther had taken the easy option and recanted.

All of us should always speak up for the truth as we see it; difficult, uncomfortable and inconvenient though it may be.

One cannot be fully human unless one is free, and one cannot be free unless one sees the world aright. When anyone of us speaks up for the truth we help all of us become more fully developed humans. What could be more worthwhile than that?

Daniel Klein writes:

You and Don are two different personalities. No reason to think that a convex combination would work. I love the variety.

I think both of you are truly exceptional and wonderful in developing, advancing, and expressing your personalities and styles.

John Fast writes:

I think that if you don't enjoy it, you won't be very good at it.

Matt C writes:

Nah, you're good the way you are. Remain Bryan.

David J. Balan writes:

I'm always puzzled by the sort of "they all suck so what's the point?" cynicism on display here. The most salient fact of human life is that there is a Sweden and there is a Sudan. That is, there is enormous variation in human outcomes. Once you recognize this, the way forward is obvious: do more Sweden stuff and less Sudan stuff (all the while trying to figure out how to do even better than Sweden).

The same idea holds for politicians. There are good, identifiable reasons why none of them are likley to be all we might hope for, but doesn't make it any less true that some of them have much stronger propsensities for starting wars, torturing people, or whatever than others do. And that's enough of a reason to pick sides and fight.

mgroves writes:


I'd respond by saying that it isn't cynicism that Bryan (or even Moliere) is expressing, but a simple recognition of imperfection and self-interested incentives. Thus, we should work to build a system that works equally well whether it is run by a villian or by a hero.

Actually, we should return to having a system that works when run by either a villain or a hero. All we have to do is undo almost everything done in the 20th century, and we'll be 90% of the way there.

David J. Balan writes:

mgroves and Troy, There is no system that works when run by villains. I can't imagine that anyone thinks there is. Villains go around killing people. A very large part of what makes Sweden Sweden is that Swedish politicians behave in certain ways and not in other ways. This, of course, is because Swedish people demand good behavior from them and/or elect people with decent inclinations in the first place.

Murder isn't the only trait of villains. One can be a villain and not murder people. The best system is one where you could even have someone as President who would have been a murderous thug in another system and make him impotent.

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