David R. Henderson  

If Politicians are Evil, What Do We Do?

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I've been pondering co-blogger Bryan Caplan's post "How Evil are Politicians?" for the last week.

As always, Bryan states his case well. And I found little in it to disagree with. But for some reason, I didn't find it compelling. I've finally figured out why. To put it bluntly, so what?

Here's what I mean. Let's say that you, like me, find Bryan's argument sound. What do you do about it? I have a strong prior view--Bryan can correct me if I'm wrong--that what Bryan would do about it is not have anything to do with politicians.

But there are two problems with that.

First, politicians aren't equally evil. In fact, a few seem to be quite good. Would Bryan see no large difference in morality between, say, Justin Amash and Dianne Feinstein? I would.

Second, as I've argued here before, I think an optimal strategy for achieving liberty would contain an element of political activism. Some of that political activism could well involve dealing with politicians. Would you get further with politicians if you consciously thought of them as evil rather than holding that in the back of your mind and treating them with respect? I think the latter is more of a winning strategy. Possibly Bryan wouldn't disagree with this. I don't know.

I'm not arguing that Bryan should interact with politicians. He reminds us often that he has built a beautiful bubble and I'm not saying that he should step outside it. There's a good chance that he shouldn't. But different strokes for different folks.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory




COMMENTS (9 to date)
James writes:

"What do you do about it?"

You stop trusting politicians when they say they will help you. This is something that most readers here already know, but for the general public it's not the case.

Take this to it's logical conclusion and you begin to treat political activity like criminal activity. No one discusses what would be a socially optimal policy for criminals to implement because we don't expect criminals to act in our interest. We expect them to act in their own interest and we just look for ways to reduce our losses.

Jackson writes:

Political activism with a goal on increasing liberty would require a deliberate ignorance on the part of the activist. If we have to agitate the political class to give us liberty and freedom then we have already lost it, and pleading with politicians to give it back is something of an evil game, one which politicians are not shy of playing.

I agree with Caplan, to the extent that the actions of politicians seem quite evil. That so-called evil could be broken down into the more obvious components of greed, avarice, stupidity, status seeking, etc.
A more sober view is that a corrupt system invites corrupt players. To the extent that they (politicians) believe they do good and represent a positive force in society demonstrates stupidity. I have the liberty to ignore this stupidity called politics, and would gladly join professor Caplan in that beautiful bubble.

Nathan W writes:

My reaction is similar to the way that I think it's stupid to tell Muslims that you KNOW they are all terrorists, or to project stereotypes about blacks being criminals and drug dealers (because they're poor?), etc. Spend lots of time saying how you are confident that Muslims have the values and strength to resist any appeal of terrorism, and projecting confidence about how blacks will soon achieve success even in the face of ongoing racism.

Do so even if you don't quite believe it. Done widely, it will positively impact many people.

Same for politicians. Express great confidence that politicians can become more honest, less corrupt, less populist, more interested in the long-term benefit of the nation, etc.

But never let down the watchful eye. Because we're not stupid. Power and money both corrupt, and they can do so to many people who come out with the best of intentions.

So express great confidence, when meeting a promising politician, that they are one of the ones who can resist the fall into lies, being corrupted by donors, etc., and still succeed by providing positive vision for a better future.

Marco writes:

I think Caplan's argument is just not much of an argument to start with.

How much time do politicians spend on their moral "due diligence"? Who cares? Morality isn't something you determine on the amount of time you put in there. For all we know, Bush pondered moral philosophy and the ethics of war every second he spent in office, and came to the conclusion that there could be a just war, and that Iraq was it.

Moreover, many politicians likely got into politics because they saw the world as needing fixing - just not in the direction Caplan seems to think it needs fixing. It just doesn't follow that a knowledge of critiques of the status quo would make someone wary of using his power - as a matter of fact, the more someone in a position of power finds the situation to be morally unacceptable, the more likely he is to try and get more power still to fix it. Hillary Clinton didn't want to nationalize healthcare because she never read Friedman or because she's unaware of the moral implications of nationalized healthcare- it's because her critique of the status quo is that it is too Friedmanite, and that there are moral implications to not changing it.

Peter Lewin writes:

David,
Very interesting. We live in a world in which, like it or not, we have to 'deal' with politicians - a second-best world. The libertarian ideal is not a reality for the here and now. We cannot avoid discussing strategy. Principles alone will not suffice. About which you hazard,

1. that politicians are not equally evil. I would suggest that not all politicians are 'evil'. Rather they are narcissistic. They lack integrity. They are about what satisfies their need for attention, admiration, and glorification. They are addicted to the accolades. (Excuse the amateur psychologizing). But, in this, they differ in degree, in what they will or won't do to. So, yes, one has to choose to deal with the better amongst them to get anything done. Which is your number 2.

2. Some degree of political activism is necessary. Given the nature of the politician psyche, it seems to me, popular opinion is key. To influence political action one has to have sufficient popular support for the desired goals. That way the politician has the incentive to make it happen and gain the approval of the public.

This means that where popular opinion, the popular mindset (heavily determined by 'culture') is stubbornly contrary to any desired set of goals - for example establishing the rule of law and economic freedom - the cause is lost. Even worse, when the popular culture in a foreign place is one that is based on norms of power and violence, and commitment to domination, one has no option but to contemplate strategies that involve the best form of defense against this. It won't do to argue that this is not the case. Instead one has to debate the best strategies for dealing with this - which of course leaves a lot open - from benign neglect to preemptive action - all the while realizing that we are dealing at home with narcissistic politicians working with the taxpayers' money. No wonder foreign policy is so contentious.

J Scheppers writes:

I have learned greatly from the public choice school, and I hope to understand Dr. Caplan's point. However, despite the evil and the constraints to trade with a politician, the fact that politicians can be bought or sold could be a feature not a bug.

To be clear it it not my intent endorse any illegal method nor state that I would pursue such illegal method, but to state many legal transactions do occur that to some extent positively shape the governmental market outcome.

Markets are about getting past evil or good judgements and focusing on the results. I praise politicians for reining in out of control bureaucracy for mere political expediency. I don't care about the source of their intentions. I only hope the incentives work to keep making them better at governance.

Pajser writes:

Caplan has two premises. 1) politicians are evil if they do not think hard; if they think hard, they are not evil; truthfulness of their conclusions do not matter and 2) politicians are evil if they do not oppose immoral will of their society. These premises are in contradiction. They cannot be true in the same time. In practice, politicians mostly think that it is better to 2') apply immoral will of the society if it cannot be avoided, and improve it on the margin.

Daniel Kendrick writes:

Pajser, I'm pretty sure Bryan would say those premises are not in conflict. In fact, I don't know why you think they are.

Bryan's position is: if politicians thought hard, they would see that their society's will is immoral and oppose it. The reason is because it is objectively true that their society's will is immoral, and thinking hard is a way of discovering the truth.

But politicians are evil and don't think hard, so they do not oppose it.

Pajser writes:

Daniel - my position is that by thinking hard, some (maybe many) politicians conclude that will of the society is evil, but so strong that opposing it hurts politicians, but not the evil. That it is better to grab influential position, do as much good on the margin of the big evil as possible. And wait with opposing big evil until such opposition will have good chance to success.

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