Bryan Caplan  

How Evil Are Politicians?

Numeracy and the Paris Attacks... Rousu on The Hunger Games...
I think politicians are, by and large, evil people.  When I shared my verdict with a journalist friend, he strongly objected.  He rightly pointed out that he's had ample personal interaction with politicians.  In his experience, politicians of both parties generally want to do the right thing.  Whatever their intellectual errors, their virtue is intact.  My mental image of villainous politicians is at odds with the facts.

I'm happy to grant that my journalist friend's first-hand experience with politicians far exceeds my own.  But I'm confident that if I saw what he saw, my doleful verdict would stay the same.  Why?  Because my standards of moral conduct are much higher than his, in two main ways.

First, virtuous people can't just conform to the expectations of their society.  Everyone has at least a modest moral obligation to perform "due diligence" - to investigate whether their society's expectations are immoral.  And whenever their society fails to measure up, virtuous people spurn social expectations and do the morally right thing.

Second, anyone in a position of political power has a greatly elevated moral obligation to perform this due diligence.  Yes, with great power comes great responsibility.  If you're in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands.  Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times, ever mindful of the possibility that you're trampling the rights of the morally innocent.

Note: Neither of these principles claims that politicians have to share my libertarian philosophy in order to be decent human beings.  They're procedural.  They require every human being to seek out and seriously consider the main moral critiques of the status quo.  And they enjoin politicians to make this intellectual hygiene their top priority.  Until they calmly recuse themselves from their society and energetically weigh a wide range of moral arguments, they have no business lifting a political finger.

At this point, the iniquity of practicing politicians should be clear.  How much time and mental energy does the average politician pour into moral due diligence?  A few hours of year seems like a high estimate.  They don't just fall a tad short of their moral obligations.  They're too busy passing laws and giving orders to face the possibility that they're wielding power illegitimately.

Such negligence is scarcely surprising.  After all, what's in it for the politicians?  Political systems reward them for seeming good by conventional standards.  If we're lucky, this spurs leaders to do what most people consider good.  More likely, it spurs leaders to spin control - packaging even their worst actions in conventional moral garb.  If there's a political system that affirmatively rewards politicians for conscientiously questioning mainstream moral standards, I've never heard of it.  Politicians have no excuses for their shameful behavior, but like almost all wrong-doers, they have reasons.

Admittedly, if it turned out that our society's conventional moral standards were basically right, our politicians' vice would be harmless.  That's a much bigger question.  But whatever the whole truth about morality might be, politicians - including the Americans politicians my journalist friend defends - are almost invariably guilty of pervasive gross moral negligence.  Politicians, repent! 

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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Philo writes:

All people are somewhat self-interested (which, I presume, sometimes inclines them to morally objectionable actions), and lack both interest and competence in moral philosophy. You have not shown that politicians--who, admittedly, often pursue their self-interest rather unreflectively--are more selfish or less thoughtful than are people in general. Your best point is that politicians have more power and so more potential for harming other people, but this is true only of those who have succeeded in attaining office and have not yet lost it. It is true we *have a greater stake* in the moral scruples of successful politicians than in those of people in general, but that is not quite to say that successful politicians *have a more stringent duty* to do moral philosophy.

I would not condemn successful politicians who merely conform to the expectations of their society. If they thought for themselves they might act better than the conformists, but they might just as well act worse. We rightly accept most of the opinions current in our society, and mistrust our own inclinations to deviation except in areas where we have special expertise; why should we not accept the moral as well as the non-moral consensus?

E. Harding writes:

The most evil politicians are the totalitarians: Afewerki, the Kims, that dude in Chad.

Lukashenko and Assad are less evil; their reigns were in some respects better than what democracy had to offer.

The Iranian and Chinese regimes are evil and would be better replaced by democracy, but there is simply no clear way from Point A to Point B.

Reagan and Obama we/are truly evil, and both knew it. Obama created the Islamic State; Reagan, the Afghan and Nicaraguan chaos.

Clinton was less evil, but there is no doubt he was accepting of it (e.g., Iraq) and knew it.

Nixon was both very smart and very evil (though possibly less so than Obama and Reagan).

Hitler and Stalin (as well as possibly al-Baghdadi) were both tremendously evil, but both genuinely believed themselves to be fighting for good causes, promoting noble lies to espouse greater truths. And Stalin can be legitimately claimed to have saved European liberal civilization (but, also, the Kim Dynasty). Hitler and Stalin are what it looks like when smart people have total power over the fates of their countries.

Bush was evil, but I genuinely think his evil came out of a misguided sense of patriotism and from a desire to fulfill what his father had begun.

Churchill was evil as heck. Also, reckless. Had he total power, he might have made Stalin look good.

Carter and Ford were sorta evil, and I don't know much about them.

Who were the least evil major politicians of the twentieth century?

Gorbachov was the politician whose great evil can be most ascribed to negligence.

Sam Grove writes:

No one sells anything with a negative message (this product is bad for you).

When politicians promise good things will happen if you give them power, that's just their sales pitch.

Ankit writes:

A saintly king is the best.Thing about democracy is that if the society is full of rascals,they will obviously select a rascal who instead of being a real leader is basically a servant of the society of rascals

foosion writes:

Reporters are much more interested in personal qualities than policy. Reporters believe they have to maintain good relations with their sources (the politicians) in order to keep their jobs.

Of course reporters are going to say politicians are not evil.

JHanley writes:

Most people are interested in controlling others, and quite willing to use authority to take from others, and almost none of them do due diligence.

By your logic, I think, the vast majority of all humans throughout history have been evil. Evil, it seems, is not just common, not just ubiquitous, but the norm.

I'm not sure a standard the produces that conclusion is necessarily a good standard, but I suppose a case can be made for it.

Phil writes:

the better question is whether politicians are selected for evilness

to be honest, it seems like lack of willingness to go against the popular will of the electorate, when that politician deems that will to be evil, is the least of it (though that situation certainly applies)


is it helpful to raise money to run campaigns?

if so, whichever politician has the least scruples about doing so is at the biggest competitive advantage

is it helpful to coverup negative stories?

if so, whichever politician has the least scruples about doing that will have the biggest competitive advantage

etc etc etc


it seems like these little moments that select for the least ethical individual permeate the entire process

such that I think its entirely appropriate to be skeptical of the ethical standing of any politician that has emerged has a winner from that process

Phil writes:

@foosion, exactly

reporter are selected for people who can get along well enough with politicians to cultivate sources

"all these guys are evil scum" isn't a mindset that's getting a reporter very far

RPLong writes:

Prof. Caplan routinely refers to psychology when there is research to support his ideas, rather than relying on economics. So, I'm a bit surprised to read this post. The best research in social psychology concludes that evil dispositions are extremely rare, but evil situations are everywhere.

Based on this research, I think it's reasonable to conclude that when evil occurs, most of it can be explained from the situation rather than from the individual.

If that's right, then it is politics and governments, not politicians and elected officials, that are evil. Power corrupts virtually everyone.

Hazel Meade writes:

I think you are mistaken. Politicans are not evil, the problem is that the nature of power is such that it presents individuals with radically different incentives than those who must work through voluntary cooperation. Politicians wield force, and because they wield force they are not answerable to those they are trying to control, the way that a business man answers to his customers in the market. Instead, they answer to those who help them maintain their grip on power, whether those people are voters or financial backers. Even if someone gets elected promising to be perfectly just to everyone, in order to stay in office he has to do what his "customer" wants, and his customer isn't the person the law is being wielded against. It's whoever got him into office.

One of the big failings of social democrats is that they believe that democracy means that politicians will do what is good for society. But because society is composed of factions of competing interests the reality is that one faction elects and uses the political process to wield force against other factions. There is really no reason to believe that if we all throw our money into a big pot that it will be justly distributed. Even if we all had the same idea of what was just.

The evil is not in the people involved, it is in the nature of the process itself.

Colombo writes:

Sometimes I think that politicians only try to please people, like a desperate kid trying to please an alcoholic mother.

We should remove these broken kids from the influence of their abusive parents. And keep matches and knives away from them too.

Richard writes:
First, virtuous people can't just conform to the expectations of their society. Everyone has at least a modest moral obligation to perform "due diligence" - to investigate whether their society's expectations are immoral. And whenever their society fails to measure up, virtuous people spurn social expectations and do the morally right thing.

You can use any definition of evil you want, but if you use this, it probably includes 90% or more of humanity. People usually reserve the word evil for a wicked minority.

Njnnja writes:

Mankind is fallen; all have evil within us and do sin. Politicians, because they are generally a self selected group driven by a desire for power may perhaps be more evil than the general population, but I would be careful of underestimating how much evil is in every individual, as well as overstating the amount of evil that is in people who you are predisposed to disagree with.

my standards of moral conduct are much higher than his

I don't want to get too preachy here, but let he who is without sin...

Alex writes:

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John Reading writes:

Since it is impossible to read the minds of others, judging their actions ONLY is the proper way to judge them. To argue that a man is not evil because he THOUGHT he was doing good is absurd since you cannot know what he thought.

The question is whether or not he knew that he was doing harm to the harmless, and we can know that without reading his mind. Did he aim the gun at the child? Did he pull the trigger? If he did, then it is irrelevant that he claims to have thought that harming the harmless was not bad. Did he drop the bomb on the city? He is evil, no matter what his philosophy.

Phil writes:


how much 'real action' is the seeking money and power, "after that, we'll take the 'real action'"

except you always need more money and more power to take more 'real action'

what if no one ever gets around to the 'real action', what if there is no 'real action'?

Jon Murphy writes:

If a person commits an evil act, even though his intentions are pure, I'd contend he is still evil.

I agree with your journalist friend that politicians likely are trying to do the right thing. But sometimes their methods are evil in and of themselves. For example, closed borders. I think you and I both agree that closed borders are largely immoral: they restrict a person's ability to better themselves for political reasons. I've no doubt that the people who call for closed borders think they are doing the right thing, but the act is still evil.

Or minimum wage. Or murder. There are lots of things that could be done with good intentions that are still evil.

Simply put, I don't think one's intentions have anything to do with it. One's actions determine whether he is evil or not.

Anonymous writes:


"We rightly accept most of the opinions current in our society, and mistrust our own inclinations to deviation except in areas where we have special expertise; why should we not accept the moral as well as the non-moral consensus?"

I don't think that's right. More accurate is that we accept the opinions of people who stand to gain from being right and lose from being wrong. I assume that people running businesses tend to know how to run them reasonably well; that people working in a given field are competent at doing that kind of work; that people who spend lots of money on a hobby know what is and isn't worth buying within that hobby.

I don't think this translates well to morality or politics, though. Being skilled in politics is about networking, making speeches, saying things people like to hear, taking credit for good events and avoiding taking blame for bad events. I don't see any reason at all to expect politicians to have a better understanding of morality than anyone else, because their success or failure in politics has absolutely nothing to do with having such an understanding.

Aaron writes:

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Jameson writes:

I like this post. Whereas many people bitterly complain that politicians are likely more evil than the average person, Caplan here is simply arguing that politicians, like most people, are evil. It is a prophetic message. It fits with the whole Caplan ethos.

Bryan Caplan, the prophet wonk.

khodge writes:

I have had enough contact with politicians to acknowledge the validity of the question but I find it both myopic and tasteless.

When dealing with professors (as in Prof. Caplan) I am always puzzled why they are so rabidly critical of politicians when, in fact, the university is a microcosm of the greater environment. Politicians are expected to find a common ground among the entire population (no one excepted). University administrators are expected to find a common ground among the homogeneous population of the university. Does that make the administrators evil? If so, following the argument of this post, university professors are evil.

Duncan Frissell writes:

At least with congresscritters it's technically feasible to come close to morality. Two have managed it in the last 65 years: H R Gross and Ron Paul (ignoring the delicate matter of crop subsidiaries). Technically both accepted salaries although Gross had no staff beyond his wife who took no pay. If you sit there and vote no on almost anything, it's possible. Gross voted against paying for the gas for JfK's eternal flame. And spoke against it on the floor. Much harder for executives to do it.

LD Bottorff writes:

Journalists like to think that they are the ones who set the agenda for America. Politicians who pay attention to journalists are trying to do the right thing. Politicians who ignore the wisdom of journalists are evil.

James writes:

Bryan, you are attributing to malice what can explained far more charitably. Maybe politicians (and others) don't bother with moral due diligence because in their experience moral deliberation if most commonly fruitless and often does more harm than good.

For most people, uncritically accepting and following the morals and habits of their surrounding society will probably lead to better behavior and better results than if they tried to think their way to something better.

Power is intoxicating. When one has it and even when one does not. That is people can convince the,selves into believes things that the group they want to fit into believes. On a subconscious level they want so much to have status they they make themselves believe that the rules and norms are objectively correct.

Brian writes:

So basically you are saying all politicians are evil because they make assumptions and don't investigate whether those assumptions are true and the domino effect of laws based on those assumptions? Everyone does that so everyone is evil.

Politicians are more evil than your Average American because there first and second goals are to get reelected.What ever there third goal is a a lot lower priority than getting reelected. Therefore they do all sorts of dumb things because they want to keep their job. If the voters actually held them accountable for what they did and not what they said you what have a lot more ethical political class.

brucee writes:

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N. Joseph Potts writes:

The system inherently selects OUT among politicians for doing what the poster proposes (he knows this).

Politicians who do as he hypothesizes become FORMER politicians - everywhere, every time, without fail.

Democracy enforces popular immorality.

Ross Milburn writes:

Hazel Meade has got it right – it’s the political process, not the individuals, who are evil. Civilization means “living by contract”, but we permit politicians to use force against us.

Humans have a uniquely powerful brain, which enables societies to cooperate peacefully and obtain more advantage than they would do from any kind of conflict. That’s why hunter-gatherers evolved a consensual form of government in which their leaders were never permitted to coerce them.

Our present governments, that enforce their will through military power, arose only as a result of military conquest caused by war over resources. When we can globally agree to return to consensual government, force, and therefore evil, will no longer be possible. If we elect “leaders,” they will be wise individuals who act as advisers, but cannot coerce us.

Hernan writes:

What I get from this article is that if you believe you have a higher moral standard than most politicians then you have a moral obligation to get into politics. Unless you believe to be able to more by doing something else.

Michael Rulle writes:

I do not mean to be insulting, but this is one of the most naive articles I have ever read on this website.

It also expresses a very disturbing sense of explicit self righteousness which has the ironic impact of appearing as if you are pointing at a mirror.

Politicians are no more evil on average than the rest of mankind.

And I tend to dislike a large number of politicians---which is irrelevant to your point.

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