Bryan Caplan  

Apolitical Reasons to Hate Politics

Bernanke on the Bank of Japan... Who is Peter Navarro?...
I hate politics.  Part of the reason, to be honest, is that I'm a libertarian, and libertarian views have almost no influence in the world of politics.  Libertarians don't just lose every election; policy-makers normally summarily reject our position.  Libertarians don't just fail to control a major party; "successful libertarian politician" is almost an oxymoron.

But perennial defeat isn't the only reason I hate politics.  On reflection, I'd loathe politics even if my policy views matched Clinton's or Trump's word-for-word.  Indeed, I'd loathe politics even if I thought prevailing policies were the pinnacle of wisdom.  Why?  Because I hate the way people think about politics, independent of the ultimate outcome.

I hate the hyperbole of politics.  People should speak literal, measured truth or be silent.

I hate the Social Desirability Bias of politics.  People should describe reality as it is, not pander to wishful thinking.

I hate the innumeracy of politics.  People should focus on what's quantitatively important, not what thrills the masses.

I hate the overconfidence of politics.  People shouldn't make claims they won't bet on, and shouldn't assert certainty unless they're willing to bet everything they own against a penny.

I hate the myside bias of politics.  People should strive to be fair to out-groups, and scrupulously monitor in-groups, to counteract our natural human inclination to do the opposite. 

I hate the "winning proves I'm right" mentality of politics.  Winning only proves your views are popular, and popular views are often wrong.

Last but not least:

I hate the excuses people make for each of the preceding evils.  While I'm open to consequentialist arguments for doing evil that good may come, most of the arguments in this genre are deeply tainted by innumeracy and overconfidence.  If you calmly weigh the social benefits of political hyperbole, carefully crunch the numbers, and grudgingly and sorrowfully conclude that it's justified in specific cases, I'm all ears.  But if you defend hyperbole with casual, undiscriminating delight, life's too short to listen to you.

P.S. While I hate how people act in politics, I emphatically don't hate the people themselves.  Politics is only a small sliver of most people's lives, so the apolitical good normally far outweighs the political bad.

COMMENTS (21 to date)

I'd say Caplan doesn't hate politics, he hates the popularity contests by majority vote that some people naively and ignorantly call democracy. I remember that I started hating those silly but dangerous contests during my childhood at about the same time I also started hating those silly but dangerous organizations that promote collective hysteria called religions.

mbka writes:

I admire politics. I admire politicians, the gifted ones, greatly. Politics is the highest art of social interaction. Politics is the art of striking compromise between people with varying preferences. Politics is the art of making people cooperate who otherwise don't like each other, in areas that are not amenable to markets. Finally, and this may sound a little more sinister, politics is the highest art art of human tool use. In politics, you use not just things, but other people, as tools to achieve a result. These other people will in turn only help you if it is also in their interest, something you have to convince them of, with compromise and concession.

Anyone who does not see politics as a high art and indeed the highest social art, is just hopelessly naive, and belongs with well intended ineffectual reformers of the esperanto / social engineering kind.

Finally, politics is also everywhere, not just in electoral public affairs. The workplace? Full of politics. Clans, clubs? Full of politics. Academia? Full of politics. And families. The five-year-old who wants the cookie on the top shelf has three choices: climb up herself (very hard), use a tool such as a ladder (a little easier), or use politics by ... asking mom, persuasively, maybe promising to take out the trash later.

Ignore politics, and you will achieve precisely nothing. Only politics gets you voluntary cooperation in non market areas, and even market actions and companies are permeated by it. This hand wringing about politics is not just eternal but also getting very old. We are human, we are social, we are therefore political. All of us. Some better, some worse. No one gets anywhere in society without at least a little bit of personal politics. To have a libertarian argue in favor of his political model while complaining about politics is like having a socialist hand-wring about the markets in the morning before organizing his garage sale at night.

Matthew Moore writes:


Assuming you are not some sort of AI trying to pass an Ayn Rand villian Turing test... I will engage in a partial Fisking.

' Politics is the art of striking compromise between people with varying preferences. '

No, that is negotiation. Politics is the art of building a large enough support base to force your preference on the remainder of people .

' Politics is the art of making people cooperate who otherwise don't like each other, in areas that are not amenable to markets. '

Countries with a history of communism have far lower social trust than capitalist ones. Markets are all about cooperation. Politics is about coercion. Also the space that is not amenable to markets is in fact tiny, much smaller than the area politics assumes control over.

' asking mom, persuasively, maybe promising to take out the trash later.' This is clearly a voluntary trade, a market interaction. The political solution would be to outvote his mother (maybe by forming a political party with his brother) and then hiring armed men to force his mother to hand over the cookie.

' Only politics gets you voluntary cooperation in non market areas '. So politics by definition is coercive. It forces a single solution on every minority. Voluntary cooperation in the non market sector is charity, not politics.

Politics builds coalitions of interest to force other people to submit. That may be occasionally necessary. But the things you have described are not politics.

Philo writes:

Most of the things that I find distasteful I don't hate, because I can afford simply to ignore them. Unfortunately politics has consequences that can't be ignored.

Mike White writes:

I do not know what bias I am displaying by saying this, but I want to walk side by side in a world full of Professor Caplans and Matthew Moores as we all accomplish our individual goals without denying others their right to do so. Unfortunately, in that world, we would have to be constantly on guard against the mbkas of the world trying to conspire and form coalitions/compromises to deny our rights. That's my initial impression after reading the initial comments. I hate politics too.

ConfusedParent writes:

@mbka: 5 year olds take out the trash? Maybe I'm doing it wrong. However I will note that that is not an example of politics, but rather of voluntary exchange. Politics would be a third party asserting that five year olds are being denied the cookies that are theirs by right, and the politician can correct this injustice by taking cookies from the parents, eating a few, and distributing the remainder to their cronies and to the deserving five year olds.

I hate politics too. So now I shall return to my bubble.

N.K Anton writes:

Mbka is right. You are all narrowly defining politics as coercion because of your own mood affiliation. Politics is collective action, which sometimes indeed requires coercion, but also requires persuasion, concerted action and other forms of collective behaviour that don't fit the binary logic of some libertarians but are very central to our survival throughout history as well as our nonhuman neighbours.

Farmers banding together and creating coalitions or alliances against bandits that threaten their property is politics as much as bandits deciding they should band together to overpower organized farmers is politics as well. Politics is inherent in our species and our history because it is a form of social technology that works wonders.

This is something that is common in non-human animals as well. This is no different than those not in business simply defining business as deceit,exploitation and greed so on.

lcg writes:

You don't hate politics. You just hate democratic politics. Move to Singapore. Take Peter Thiel with you.

Phil writes:


I'd be curious as to what you books or other source materials you would consider to be the best learning materials for the 'art of politics'

Matt C writes:

Unfortunately, modern politics, particularly the current Presidential election, is more akin to the bread and circus of the Roman empire than any sort of measured discourse that honestly weighs social benefits against costs.

While it is difficult not to dislike politicians, (even those whose positions are generally agreeable) and the media (who lack objectivity and discretion), it is the masses themselves who are to blame. The voters show clear preferences in consumption of politics, and by and large, Bryan's "hates" fetch a high price in the voter market.

Ignoring for a moment the oligopolistic political system, it is the person who votes for hyperbole, overconfidence, and innumeracy who is ultimately responsible here. Politicians are like any other producer—they produce the political goods they believe the voters will pay the most for.

I would also add one more "hate" to the list: political amnesia, defined as the lack of historical perspective when making political arguments or decisions.

Thaomas writes:

All good reasons to dislike politics but not good enough to disdain politics. Aside from joining a polity of angels, what's the alternative?

GregS writes:

It’s a little bit uncomfortable to hold all these policy views without giving much thought as to how to actually govern, isn’t it? I’ve thought about this: suppose I were to get active in my small local government. What’s the libertarian playbook for that? Tear down city hall? I don’t think so. There are real collective action problems and externalities at the town or county level, so someone has to govern. The libertarian solution to government, “privatize everything,” just shifts the problem to some other city-sized entity. I’m all in favor of privatizing the things that government has no business doing, and I think this means not having large national or state-level governments (except for nation- or state-sized externality problems, possibly not even then). But at smaller levels, *someone* has to govern, be it an actual government or a private manager.

I’m imagining a meeting of a neighborhood association trying to set the ground-rules for, say, parking a trailer on the street. And the libertarian in the group says, “Don’t worry! We don’t actually need to adjudicate this problem. Coase showed that the disputants will come to mutually agreeable terms regardless of how the problem is adjudicated.” And he doesn’t realize that he’s actually in that conversation between disputants. Politics, even the politics of a private organization, is sometimes dirty, but someone has to sit down at the table and hammer these things out. The free market doesn’t do it for us. All that said, I personally share your distaste for politics. It’s just that sometimes these argument slip into a facile “the world optimizes itself” mode when the person making that argument actually needs to do something.

ConfusedParent writes:

Politics really is coercion though. It's not a people "banding together" to "solve" some problem. Do drug users band together with moralists to decide that the "solution" to the "collective problem" of "drug abuse" is longer sentences for drug users? No, one side outvotes the other and imposes its decisions on everyone.

Now, I will grant that coercion is sometimes appropriate as the least bad alternative, but it doesn't seem helpful to call it something else.

James writes:


The libertarian playbook varies by your exact position. If you were e.g. police commissioner, you would assign as few cops to enforcing victimless crime laws as you could get away with. That's one example. While you probably thought you had raised a "stumper" I'll bet you can probably figure out the rest of the answer with a little thought.

BJK writes:

It's OK to be uniquely contrarian.

PhilippeO writes:

Seconded everything mbka and N.K.Anton says.

Politics and Law, despite hatred of majority of peoples, is an art on human cooperation and conflict.

GregS writes:

James: I promise I wasn’t trying to pose a “stumper” for the sake of stumping. I think this is a hard problem. You picked a fairly easy example where “do less” is the obvious solution to the problem. There are clear-cut cases, but then there are also some borderline cases. Imagine a zoning dispute in a small town. Someone wants to build a business, but the residents say it would destroy property value and cause unsafe traffic around where children ride their bikes. Is this just pure NIMBY-ism? Or do the residents have a legitimate grievance? We could say, “Let them build their business and let the residents sue if they want,” but that’s a dodge. The local government might be the best positioned, with the most relevant local knowledge, to resolve the conflict at the lowest cost. Another one: Should the small town privatize the roads? Or should the local government see itself as a public trust set up to manage a common property? For a large enough city, privatizing might make sense. But for a small enough town, it makes more sense for city hall to actually manage the property. Which invariably leads to all the nasty political behaviors Caplan discusses above.

I very much like the idea of moving things from public to private governance, but even if we do that it ultimately falls on *someone* to actually govern.

S M V writes:

I agree, somewhat with mbka and N.K.Anton. Broadly defined politics is embedded in every human organization. Instead we should all despise the pageantry of elections and other institutions that justify, trivialize & even sanctify the use of force beyond defending people and property.


mbka writes:

Just an add-on. Some may say that actual politics is the despicable thing, while ideal politics, done by good people, should be a noble affair. Indeed much of Bryan's original post was in this spirit. I believe the opposite is true. Actual politics is a miracle as amazing as the invisible hand of the markets.

First off let's get one thing out of the way, confusion of politics with policy. Politics is deal making over whether something will be done by an organization. Policy is the "something". A good politician need not know much about policy. A good policy maker need not know much about politics.

Second, the confusion about to what extent politicians are "bad people" who "achieve nothing", or bad things with their deals. Two explanations are usually offered. One is that politicians act out of too much self interest ("the corrupt elite"). This type of critique sounds close to what a Trump supporter would say. Then you have Bryan Caplan's argument, that politicians and their supporters act out of too much selflessness ("Social desirability"). Both arguments of course confuse policy with politics. The reason why one does politics may well be one or the other, corruption or idealism. The process of politics however, the thing that people find so most disgusting, is what it is regardless of content. It's how you get agreement from people you cannot force. Content, policy, and its reasons, are a different matter. It is the process of politics that I find nearly miraculous.

By the way if politics is the art of getting voluntary support from other people, and not necessarily with direct tangible benefits for the cooperators, I do believe that most politicians act out of social desirability bias. I believe politicians cooperate on what they genuinely think is "best for society" in the same way that corporate managers decide for the "good of the company". The few times I met actual politicians in the flesh, they seemed highly intelligent, fast thinkers, sincere, and utterly convinced by their cause to find the best outcome. Even when I did not agree with the desired outcome I had to admit that.

Now to the process. Where is the miracle? Ask yourselves this. How does some unknown low level officer lead a coup with the help of people whom he cannot promise anything for sure, without guarantees? How come some formerly unknown law professor makes it to US president in a few short years? How come a John McCain is now supporting a Donald Trump who has personally insulted him?

I argue that none of the above makes sense unless you accept that politics constantly requires people to convince others, to make them cooperate just out of trust, to often jump over their own shadow, swallow their pride, cooperate with personal enemies, promise what they can promise and what they cannot, and all of this, by constantly negotiating, and ultimately convincing, people to cooperate with them when they DO NOT HAVE TO. Either they offer personal favors in return, or social desirability, yes, but both are soft, not guaranteed, promises - not contracts! A price is paid, a service rendered, and all you can do is hope for return, or loyalty, or an ultimate outcome for society. And politicians do it. They convince people. Yes, you and me too. They convince people all the time, even former enemies, when they have almost nothing to offer than words and dreams. And this is the miracle.

Chris Wegener writes:

I also completely support what @mbka and @N.K Anton are saying. As Bismark said "people who love sausages and politics should watch neither being made."

Politics is indispensable. Human civilization would not survive without it despite the fantasies of libertarians.

Most people who profess love libertarianism have never lived where there is no zoning or where the local government refuses to build roads, I have had both experiences.

In Montana there is no zoning so if a contractor moves in next door and stores his heavy equipment in his yard or adjacent property is turned into a gravel pit the neighboring citizens have no recourse. The outcomes are not what an libertarian would accept if it happened to them.

In St John in the US Virgin Islands the roads (three actually) are maintained by the federal government. All other roads are provided by property owners. It is quite expensive for individuals as well as the quality of the roads suffer greatly leading to a lot of wear and tear on island cars. To say nothing of the free rider problem of people refusing to pay for paving and then attaching their driveways to the road after paving.

Anybody who thinks that they can construct a community of more than a handful of residents without politics and "coercion" is so far out of touch with reality with "literal, measured truth" as to not understand what that means.

As the Chinese say "truth has many faces." Politics is the only way to get enough people to agree to at least some of the truth to allow humans to live in anything other than small family clans.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I think Bryan and mbka are both right. I agree with Bryan in that I hate politics too, and especially those politics used to run governments.

But mbka is right that politics is inherent in the human condition. I partly hate politics because I am not very good at it.

Although I do also think it is true that societies can have less or more politics. The extreme socialists believe you should have a meeting to solve every problem, while the libertarians figure the best solution is to let people do what they want if possible. Also that the negotiating parties should only be those directly involved if possible, instead of the whole community. I have more sympathy for the libertarian approach.

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