Bryan Caplan  

Modelling the Marriage of High Virtue and Low Cunning

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David Brooks praises Lincoln for showing that the "challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning."  He elaborates:

The movie is about pushing the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. The political operatives Lincoln hires must pay acute attention to the individual congressmen in order to figure out which can be appealed to through the heart and which through the wallet.

Lincoln plays each potential convert like a musical instrument, appealing to one man's sense of idealism, another's fraternal loyalty. His toughest job is to get the true believers on his own side to suppress themselves, to say things they don't believe in order not to offend the waverers who are needed to get the amendment passed.

Suppose Brooks' claims are factually correct.  What economic, psychological, and/or sociological model(s) would explain them?  Why precisely would good political ideas need to be shrouded in deception?  Or is the claim that all political ideas needed to be shrouded in deception?  If so, why would this be so?

As the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, I know where I'd start, but I'd like to hear sometime else talk.  What would Brooks himself say?



COMMENTS (6 to date)
Vipul Naik writes:

I think the claim is that any political idea that involves a change from the status quo requires political deception, because the status quo is already very reflective of what the median voter wants, and political policies are already pretty close to equilibrium given the backdrop of voter beliefs, political players, and special interests. This plays into one of your MRV claims that voters basically get the policy that they want already, and that that's the problem with democracy.

Regarding Lincoln, though, if his approach counts as success, then that's depressing news for radical opponents of the status quo, considering the 625 K death toll in the US in the war led by Lincoln. The US population at the time was between 30 and 40 million, so this was a pretty huge death toll in proportional terms. Almost no opponent of the status quo in the US today would countenance this high a death toll in pursuit of radical change.

Doug writes:

Modern political systems, particularly Western democracy, separate the unity of control and profit. Deviations from this basic organizational structure turn basically all governing decisions into an iterated version of the minority game.

In normal shareholder structures where control and profit are unified, controlling actions are incentivized to maximize the value of the enterprise as a whole. Even slight deviations from this time-tested structure produce all manners of crazy shenanigans.

michael svehla writes:

Maybe your book should have been called "The Myth of the Rational Human Being." All ideas good or bad are shrouded, in text books, novels, conversations etc. Its what Edward Bernays tapped into.
If the first imperative of the gene is self-interest, its no wonder we, human beings, are not rational. Its the motor of petty bribes and Civilization.

Mike W writes:

What would Brooks say? Probably something so moderate as to be infuriating to both sides. But, my take on "why...good political ideas need to be shrouded in deception" is because the masses of humanity are ignorant, self-centered, unmotivated and afraid of change...and in a democracy the masses have the veto power.

Carl Jakobsson writes:

If someone agrees because of pecuniary interests it would hurt his ego that someone else have an entirely different moral outlook. It would maybe also make that person insecure - "what if they get into power?" - and could thus change his mind if he became aware of the ethical difference. Could be easily fitted into the signalling-model, if ethical persuasion is something worth signalling.

Ken B writes:

You could probably whip up and Arrow Impossibility-ish argument. A consistent statement is needed to convince one mind, but a democracy is not like one mind. It doesn't even obey IIC. Arguments for a position can function as arguments for other, alternative positions or political goals. Seeing extreme levellers advocate anti-slavery may persuade property-rights types to back off for instance.

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