David R. Henderson  

Politics is Not Usually About Policy

Cotton from Teksa... Not all macroeconomic problems...

Why you probably shouldn't pay attention to Milo Yiannopoulos.

Co-blogger Bryan Caplan is a fan of his colleague Robin Hanson. One of Robin's favorite aphorisms is "Politics is not about policy." When I first heard it, I did what many people would do, which is search for counterexamples to a generalization. It's not hard to find counterexamples. So I rejected it. But ever since hearing it some years ago, I've been watching political debates through a Hansonian lens. And the lens almost always makes things crystal clear. It explains why so many Republicans oppose policies by Democrats and then turn around and support similar policies by Republicans. It explains why so many Democrats oppose policies by Republicans and then turn around and support similar policies by Democrats. So much of the antiwar movement can be explained through Robin's lens: it's not typically about war. When Obama came into power and continued some wars, even starting some of his own, the antiwar movement, other than libertarians at antiwar.com and a few of their non-libertarian allies, was largely silent.

The latest case involves the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. When I saw on the news the other night all the destruction wrought by some thugs at UC Berkeley over his speech at Berkeley, I wondered who he was. I knew vaguely, but I had never read or watched a speech by him. Now I have: this one that he gave at West Virginia University. The man says disgusting, vile things.

So then how to explain why so many College Republican groups bring him to campus. What policies do they hope to change and hope that he will help change? The problem with asking that question is that it presumes that their politics are about policy. They largely are not. Instead, the College Republicans who invite him do so, I believe, for their own entertainment and to taunt leftists. If that's what's going on, then they succeed. They probably put their cause back because really, what can you learn from someone who throws around the f-word and the c-word and who calls people out over their obesity? But again, the sentence immediately preceding assumes that these College Republicans have a larger cause. Many of them, apparently do not.

Politics is usually not about policy.

HT2 Peter G. Klein for getting me thinking more about this.

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Anon writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

I guess this depends upon what one means by "politics" or "policy". Robin Hanson seems to be employing a definition of "politics" which includes
(a) the posturing within a polity where upcoming elections motivate "us" vs. "them" division, but not
(b) the political means (as opposed to the economic means) of getting something.

Hanson offers insight, but surely the broader meaning of "politics" to include the political means (that is policy) will continue in use.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

I wonder if any of this is analogous to Lenny Bruce in an earlier time.

AntiSchiff writes:

Dr. Henderson,

Very good comments. I add that what is lost in controversies like this is that this is not a scholar we're talking about. He's not even an entertainer, in the traditional sense, so why schedule him to speak at all?

I think some people have taken "tolerance" to mean we should tolerate all things, at all times, by all people, whatever the context. This, of course, is nonsense.

There's a big difference between having, say, a Milton Friedman, challenge liberal ideas on campus, and an opportunistic hate monger who offers nothing of substance whatsover, especially from a scholarly viewpoint.

john hare writes:

This post describes why I walked away from the local 912 Project. Their claim was to be good conservative patriotic etc... Their reality was Democrat, Liberal, Libertarian, and 'not us' bashing. Very often with little or no information on the item in question.

A specific one that annoyed me was the frequent reference to Obama as "Golfer in Chief" referring to the time on the golf course instead of in his office. There were several points about this that got me.

One is that it suggests that there are no more important complaints about his performance as president.

Two is the implication that anyone must or even can work every waking hour with no time off or relaxation.

Three is that anyone on call 24/7 is not off duty ever, especially the president as there were certainly people seconds away ready to get to business, ie nuclear codes.

Even as someone that is not an Obama fan, I was offended after a while.

Rich Berger writes:

I read the speech you referenced and couldn't understand your characterization of it as "vile". Sure, Milo said a few bad words and was insufficiently respectful of fat people, but this was pretty tame for a culture that treats Madonna as an important political commentator. The campus left insists on veto power over very mild-maanered commentators if their views are "incorrect".

Simply words, and the acceptable response is to set fires, smash windows and physically assault those with whom you disagree?

AlanG writes:

@Rich Berger-it was a group of anarchists wearing black hoods that disrupted the event. Probably from the same group that attempted to cause problems at the recent inauguration. UC Berkeley supported the event and worked hard to make sure that it would happen in a peaceful manner. Unfortunately, they were not successful. Dealing with anarchists is always difficult as the history of the US amply demonstrates.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Rich Berger,
Sure, Milo said a few bad words and was insufficiently respectful of fat people, but this was pretty tame for a culture that treats Madonna as an important political commentator.
I don’t regard her that way. I like a great deal of her music but some of her comments are even more vile than those of Milo.

Thaomas writes:

I don't think you give college Republicans enough credit. The point of inviting someone like Yiannopoulos to campus is precisely to provoke the kind of reaction that they got at Berkeley which can them be blamed on Liberals.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

He serves a useful purpose. Without Milo we don't get to see who says "this man says disgusting things" and who starts throwing Molotov cocktails instead. If nobody says disgusting things, it's not because nobody wants to, it's because nobody is allowed to.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:


"The point of inviting someone like Yiannopoulos to campus is precisely to provoke the kind of reaction that they got at Berkeley which can them be blamed on Liberals."

This reminds me of the skits the African American comedian Flip Wilson did around 1970--I think on the Ed Sullivan show--which centered around the phrase "The devil made me do it". The idea was that the devil, and not Wilson, was responsible for all the bad stuff that he (Wilson) would do. It was his comedic way out of avoiding personal responsibility for his actions.

Wilson was joking. If I'm not mistaken, you are not.

TMC writes:

Milo is outrageous, but serves the purpose of giving the other side a taste of their own medicine. The Tea Party folks always took the high road while the Wall Street folks did not. The Tea Party was not rewarded for this.

john hare: "Golfer in Chief" was more about how Obama was very lazy in his approach to everything. Foreign leaders have complained how any alliance with the US was useless as Obama would dither until his help would be useless. Never bothered me, as my side could have used more of his laziness.

jc writes:

Bryan Caplan: "When the typical economist tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is ‘Eh, maybe.’ Then I forget about it. When Robin Hanson tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is ‘No way! Impossible!’ Then I think about it for years."

Having gotten that out of the way... :)

This could be about policy. The preferred policy is to ban or restrict Political Correctness and/or protect Freedom of Speech (and thought).

But, yes, the driver could also be a more Hansonian reason, e.g., to reduce the status of and/or defy/taunt those you oppose while signaling conformity to sacred tribal norms/membership (while substantive disagreement or consistency w/ your own past views is simply not that important).

Either way, life is funny. In an alternate universe did Dan Quayle, instead of rebuking Murphy Brown, openly admire and fight for the gay Jewish man - called a Nazi by Democrats who hate him - and his right to publicly say vile things? No need for an alternate universe. Just wait for the future. Where the Cubs win the World Series, Donald Trump is POTUS, and this hypothetical situation basically comes to pass.

Speaking of which, yes, the above leads me to believe that we probably do live in a simulation. And someone is having fun w/ us. :)

MWB writes:

With this little bit of political provocation, UC Berkeley College Republicans have successfully applied Saul Alinsky's fourth rule; so Hanson's insight holds on the meta level, too.

john hare writes:

The specific group I was referring to simply used that as one of the insults to Obama or anyone else not of their exact grouping. Very few of the ones that used that expression in that group were ever guilty of overthinking issues.

I am not saying you are wrong at in the larger world. Just in reference to that group.

Thomas Sewell writes:

@AlanG: UC Berkeley ultimately allowed a heckler's veto to prevail.

A free speech for all respecting institution would line up the police and invite Milo back and ensure he spoke, just on the now required-based-on-events principle of not allowing violence shut people up at their university.

If the left, or whoever, wanted to hurt Milo, the smart thing to do would be to not protest, not mention him, and never write articles about him. Virtually no one had heard of him until the left started promoting him as the latest Kardashian-level celebrity.

He's taken trolling to epic levels, building a multi-million dollar career out of convincing rubes on the left to protest him and give him news coverage better than he'd get with millions in advertising.

Aristotle Magganas writes:

@Thomas Sewell this is the UC Berkeley chancellor's letter. UC Berkeley, the institution acted admirably in defense of the speaker's rights. Heck, the student protestors for the most part just protested. But the 'antifa' agitators got their way.

To the campus community:
UC Berkeley condemns in the strongest possible terms the actions of individuals who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students, and used violent tactics to close down the event. We deeply regret that the violence unleashed by this group undermined the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence.

The University went to extraordinary lengths to facilitate planning and preparation for this event, working in close concert with the Berkeley College Republicans. Dozens of police officers were brought in from UC campuses across the state. Numerous crowd control measures were put in place. But, we could not plan for the unprecedented. Last night the Berkeley campus was invaded by more than 100 armed individuals clad in Ninja-like uniforms who utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior designed to shut the event down. At that point the University of California Police Department concluded that the speaker had to be evacuated from campus for his own safety, thereby bringing the event to an end.

For the campus police the primary objective is always the safety and well-being of our students and the public. That is what informs their strategies and tactics. In that context we are relieved that, as of now, there have been no reports of serious injuries.

We are proud of our history and legacy as the home of the Free Speech Movement. While we have made clear our belief that the inflaming rhetoric and provocations of Mr. Yiannopoulos were in marked opposition to the basic values of the university, we respected his right to come to campus and speak once he was invited to do so by a legitimate student group. The violence last night was an attack on the fundamental values of the university, which stands for and helps to maintain and nurture open inquiry and an inclusive civil society, the bedrock of a genuinely democratic nation. We are now, and will remain in the future, completely committed to Free Speech as essential to our educational mission and a vital component of our identity at UC Berkeley.

Nicholas Dirks

Niko Davor writes:


"They dressed “like ninjas” and marched onto UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza like a paramilitary force armed with bats, steel rods, fireworks and Molotov cocktails"

This is basically terrorism. It wasn't lethal. But several Milo fans were bloodied. It's not to the level of ISIL, but the political left is literally engaging in armed planned terror and violent intimidation.

And Henderson criticizes Milo?!? That's like those that criticized Charlie Hebdo after they were assassinated. Even if Milo or Hebdo's humor was distasteful, it was 100% peaceful. The instant the opposition resorts to full scale violence is where any reasonable moderate will lose any sympathy for them and take the side of the persecuted. Any reasonable moderate committed to peace and avoiding a civil war should be criticizing this black bloc movement and any groups that support them. Henderson's failure to do so is disappointing.

The mayor of Berkeley tweeted that Milo's "hate speech" isn't welcome in the city. As a standing mayor of a US city, isn't that a violation of First amendment?

Henderson asks what specific policies were the College Republicans that invited Milo hoping to advance? Milo is a political entertainer like a right wing Stephen Colbert. Left wingers don't watch Colbert with a policy agenda, they hear current events in an entertaining and clever way. If you look at Milo's crowds people are laughing and smiling and having a good time. Breitbart has other meetups with lesser known speakers that don't draw any controversy, but people have a good time and talk with like minded folk.

And lastly, politics is generally about different social/demographic coalitions vying for status and relative power.

John Fembup writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Mike W writes:

His W. Virginia U. "speech" is little more than a stand-up comedy routine. Is this what passes for education at state colleges today? Come to Vegas, same entertainment at a lower cost. Is D.H.'s beef that M.V. is more entertaining and thereby more influential than most university professors?

Kevin writes:

Sounds like policy vs politics is a similar concept between dialectic and rhetoric. Milo is rhetoric. Its nonsense that is emotionally charged and wins over some hearts. Winning over minds is a fun game for maybe 5% of the population interested in economic blogs and the pure pursuit of ideas. The rest of the people vote for whoever confirms their world view or sounds "cooler" and pulls at their heart strings. That is reality. Emotional arguments will win the day every time over an intellectual argument. The majority of debates had at this and like blogs are absolutely meaningless to changing hearts (and obviously that is not their goal). They might get transformed into policy by the group in power. They are interesting to a tiny slice of the population and for the majority of them just confirming bias.

Trumps economic policy is gibberish, but having someone actually talk about getting jobs back speaks emotionally to alot of people. That matters.

"Anarchists" is media speak for leftist terrorists. That level of terrorism and how many arrests were made? Eventually a Milo event will be held where both sides show up to demonstrate force of will, and then it will be interesting to see who gets arrests the "anarchists" who want more government, or the "fascist" libertarian minded group.

I read the Milo speech. That was pretty boring. I don't know if he is disgusting - he is crass - but I think typical of college campuses. Maybe college students want more rhetoric and less pretending that they can win people over with arguments.

John Fembup writes:

"The man says disgusting, vile things."

Really? Really, David? Seems to me you have set the threshold on your vile-thing-o-meter way too low. I mean, you sound positively Victorian.

After reading Yiannopoulos' West Virginia remarks at the link you provided, my reaction is that they were reasonably perceptive observations, presented with some wit and humor. I also suggest his language was mild compared to what we regularly hear and read reported during street protests, by media types in studios and, sadly, even from some academics, all hopping mad that Trump somehow got elected and who just cannot control themselves. In fact, Yiannopoulos seems to me within the same general genre of social observers, both in content & style, as Dick Gregory, or Chris Rock, or Lenny Bruce . . . or even John Oliver (I'd link to some of their stuff, but I don't care to be banned for doing so).

One big difference between those four and Yiannopoulos is he is on the right, while they are/were on the left.

Surely you cannot be suggesting that the litmus for "disgusting" and "vile" is being on the right??

In case it's relevant to you - I trust it's not - I'm 72 years old and a lifetime Democrat. And a longtime reader of Econlog. 😎

David R. Henderson writes:

You’re misusing the word “rhetoric.”
@John Fembup,
I also suggest his language was mild compared to what we regularly hear and read reported during street protests, by media types in studios and, sadly, even from some academics, all hopping mad that Trump somehow got elected and who just cannot control themselves.
That could well be. I think that’s disgusting too. I don’t have to choose between him and them.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mike W,
Is D.H.'s beef that M.V. is more entertaining and thereby more influential than most university professors?
I’m assuming that you mean M.Y. On that assumption, I’ve told you my beef. It’s in my post.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top