Bryan Caplan  

The Ethics of Giving Machiavellian Advice

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A British reporter just gave me the following hypothetical: Suppose a politician wanted to cynically take advantage of voter irrationality to gain their support for costly measures to fight global warming.  What would his most effective strategies be?

One of my answers: Loudly announce that industry, not consumers, will pay the price. 

I have to admit, though, that I was reluctant to answer the question.  It makes me feel a little like an accomplice.

Still, I doubt I'm telling politicians anything they don't already know.  And by shining some light on politicians' efforts to take advantage of voter irrationality, I think I'm slightly undermining the effectiveness of their manipulation.

Question: Is it right or wrong to publicly offer hypothetical Machiavellian advice?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
parco writes:

Wouldn't it be better to say that that the price will be paid by domestic polluters (not just any "industry") and hostile foreign countries that support terrorists? And, on top of that, it will create jobs in green industries and reduce trade deficit. And, if we don't do it, we will all die in a flood of epic proportions.

The idea is to use make-work bias, anti-foreign bias and pessimistic bias in addition to anti-market bias.

But, when I read again what I just wrote, I realized that they's sort of already saying exactly that. :)

David writes:

Because, as you said, politicians are already employing Machiavellian tactics, I view this as a /good/ thing to do. You're not giving the abusers any new ideas, but you are potentially enlightening those whom they are attempting to dupe.

guthrie writes:

I agree with David. Talking about it is informative. Doing it is destructive.

Ryan Vann writes:

I'm definitely with David. It's like an exposé on violent drug cartels. While there might be some thugs that get bright ideas, the main effect is to inform, and maybe spur action against them.

Besides, only the really dumb politicians wouldn't know how to play populist blame games against industry. They probably aren't going to be effective if your suggestion gives them ideas anyway.

Doc Merlin writes:

Its not only right, its a moral imperative to give public Machiavellian advice. It points out clear flaws in the system.

steve writes:

So what advice Machiavellian or otherwise would you give for thwarting the strategy you proposed?

Seems like publicly explaining what the politions are doing and why it is incorrect would be part of that advice. So is someone now gonna suggest that Machiavelli himself was doing the peasants a favor?

I don't know. Maybe just calling the politicians hypocrites over and over would be more effective.

bil. A. writes:

The currently successful politicians are already doing this.

Presumably, the initial beneficiaries of such advice would be marginally unsuccessful candidates?

The net effect would be to increase the competitiveness of the political rent-creation/provision market?

Would increased rhetorical competitiveness of marginal candidates increase the electoral returns to candidate financing? Increasing the (partial equilibrium) marginal value of rent-seeker campaign dollars? Thus leading to more rent-seeker spending on candidates? (both on a per-candidate basis and across a now-larger portfolio of viable candidates?)

Of course if the successful politicians are already using this rhetoric, the gross returns (and loss of social welfare due) to rent-seeking don't change. So perhaps the net return to rent-seeking falls?

Then again, this would be offset to some degree as the rents obtained by rent-providing politicians would shrink due to the increased competitiveness (going to rent seekers, presumably), reducing the supply of candidates (would they go into the productive sector?). So perhaps the effect on net returns to rent-seeking is ambiguous.

So I guess it would be a question of elasticities?

I'm sure I'm missing some glaringly important aspects.

Marcus writes:

This is an age old argument in the computer security field. If you publish details of an exploit, are you:

A) Aiding and abetting a potential hacker?

or

B) Providing systems administrators with valuable information with which they can protect themselves?

In fact, you're doing both.

Concerning B, if the systems administrator doesn't have the information she needs to be able use an exploit, how can she know for certain her systems are protected against it?

Unit writes:

Question: Is it right or wrong to publicly offer hypothetical Machiavellian advice?

Yes, when properly labeled.

Bill Drissel writes:

Ah, but of course you think like an economist. A politician wouldn't think of raising cost in the first breath .... no no no no! The first breath must inspire fear - walls of water drowning our cities ... hurricanes at every hand, tropical diseases at 60 deg N latitude etc.

Let them complain as long as they fear.

Only when opponents raise the cost question would the politician claim a tiny minority (preferably despised) would have to pay.

Regards,
Bill Drissel

John Fast writes:

Bryan wrote:
Question: Is it right or wrong to publicly offer hypothetical Machiavellian advice?

Like guthrie, Ryan Vann, Doc Merlin, and others, I agree with David.

Bryan, as far as I'm concerned you answered your own question perfectly:
I doubt I'm telling politicians anything they don't already know. And by shining some light on politicians' efforts to take advantage of voter irrationality, I think I'm slightly undermining the effectiveness of their manipulation.

Therefore there is little or no cost, and some benefit, therefore it's a Good Thing.

Steve: I don't think that just calling politicians Machiavellian will do any good, because people (including other politicians) call politicians names all the time. Talk is cheap, and even the "rationally irrational" public realizes this. What will help is providing evidence that a politician is not telling the truth (and hence is either dishonest or stupid). If I were in a debate, or were interviewed, I would say something like "people who know about the details -- the experts -- agree that consumers will pay most of the cost. Even the economists who support my opponent's party admit it. And it's not because businesses are greedy, it's because their costs will increase, so they have to raise their prices or else go out of business. I don't know whether my opponent is dishonest or just honestly ignorant, but either is bad for the country."

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