not to praise Caesar but to bury him
contra Huemer on politicians
Michael Huemer ponders a paradox of politicians - most people say they want honest politicians, but they vote for dishonest ones, and have negative stereotypes about “politicians” as a group. Huemer’s explanation (voters are ill-informed because being right about politics is a tragedy of the commons) and agenda (therefore, weaken the power of politicians) are pretty standard for right-libertarians.
Contra Huemer, I think that voters can simultaneously hold accurate negative stereotypes of politicians as a whole, while also continuing to wish major institutions to be ruled through representative democracy and even continuing to vote for and approve of their own representatives.
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malevolent exercise of power by representatives
Let’s grant that politicians do a lot of bad things - about the easiest thing in the world to grant. Then we can in principle group these into:
principal-agent problems, where politicians pursue their own venal self-interest at the expense of ordinary voters, and
principal-other problems, where pursuing voters’ preferences is itself destructive
(For the sake of simplicity I’m leaving out politicians’ serving as agents for the principals of a ruling class that is much smaller than the population as a whole; or at any rate grouping them under “principal-other problems.”)
An unambiguous example of the first kind of problem is a politician who votes based on bribes, and then pockets the money to spend on what he personally enjoys.
Now, my feeling is that by far most of the worst things that political leaders do fall under the heading of principal-other problems, not principal-agent problems. Internal campaigns of repression in dictatorships, and foreign wars and colonial conquests carried out by states that are democratic “at home,” and apartheid systems employed by herrenvolk democracies carry out violence against nonvoters. (This is one of the reasons that I despise restrictions on felons’ voting: it retroactively makes potential victims of state repression into nonvoters as soon as it is applied against them.)
It’s certainly not the case that politically enfranchised members of the population never are subject to state violence, backed by popular prejudice. But the correlation is incredibly high.
With this in mind, let’s consider how rational voters are in their general attitude towards politicians. Is there a contradiction in their behavior? To really consider voter attitudes, we have to compare politicians to three groups: non-politicians in general, non-politicians who might exercise the power of politicians under an alternative system, and other politicians. These different comparison classes are salient to different appraisals of politicians - some of which, as Huemer notes, are favorable, and others unfavorable.
politicians vs. ordinary people
Popular stereotypes hold that politicians are sleazebags. Assuming this is true - and I don’t have strong intuitions either way but am happy to bow to popular prejudice here - I think Huemer himself gives a perfectly good explanation for why this is:
One explanation is self-selection, i.e., immoral people are more likely to want to be political leaders in the first place.
Why might this be true? Perhaps because a major attraction of the job is the opportunity to exercise power over other people. If that’s a major driver in your life, then you’re probably kind of a bad person.
More charitably, one could of course say that the negative stereotypes of politicians extend to most professional communicators (lawyers, advertisers, and the like.) What’s more, I do think there is a certain style of speaking that is sort of dishonest-feeling whenever almost anyone speaks in an official capacity before a large audience - a sort of awareness that one must hedge, avoid giving offense, and speak carefully and diplomatically - that even very honest and sincere people fall into. Either way, if someone says politicians as a class are dishonest, it’s a presumed comparision to the general population.
Note that when asked if they “approve” of their politicians, much less when asked in a voting booth whether to re-elect them, this need not be their basis of comparison. Indeed, it would be a pretty odd voter who did (outside perhaps of the capacity of campaigning for sortition or the like.)
politicians vs. other politicians
When people vote, their comparing politicians to each other. Are people engaged in special pleading when they approve of their own representative, but dislike Congress (and so on) as a whole?
No, obviously not. To take a very stupid analogy, I would much rather be married to my own current spouse than a randomly chosen spouse throughout the country, and so would nearly every married person. Are we all deluded that our own spouse is better than average? Well, perhaps - this is a form of irrationality that I’m no doubt guilty of and don’t even desire to correct - but it’s also true that people by and large chose their spouses rather than being randomly assigned to them, and my spouse fits what I like in a person and so on for other people.
By the same token, even though I’m a political extremist with views outside the Overton Window, I will begrudgingly admit that my own representative in Congress is better than average. I’m way out on the far left, she’s about as left as I could reasonably hope for given the realities of American politics, and I’ll take a look at alternatives come primary season but I also have to be realistic. Now, this is at least partially a matter of chance, but if you’re like most people in your district - and most people are - then there’s likely a correlation between your views and those of the people in your district.
politicians vs. rule by non-politicians
Okay, but what about rule by non-politicians? Huemer proposes anarchism, and I would describe myself as at least somewhat anarcho-curious. However, I think it’s the case that:
most historical alternatives to vote-grubbing politicians are at least as bad as politicians, and
plausible good alternatives would reproduce much of what is currently annoying about politicians
The defining feature of political democracy, to my mind, is that it minimizes the role of the principal-other problem. A hereditary monarch, profit-maximizing corporation exercising sovereignty, vanguard party, and ambitious coterie of military officers, whatever other properties they may have (and I can simultaneously imagine each of these composed of virtuous people and some reasons why systematically they may not be so) have this at massive scale.
Now I think Huemer would say: the problem is not really who is in charge, it is the ability to exercise coercive power. But while I think coercive power can be more widely spread (democracy sensu lato) and thus used with caution, I’m skeptical that you can abolish it, certainly most anarcho-capitalist proposals do not do away with it, except by redefining coercion to not include enforcing property rights or the like.
But let’s say that a fairy from outside the political system waves a magic wand and (coercively, if you will!) makes it impossible for humans to engage in coercion and violence against one another, putting us in grabworld.
Now in this world there are, ex hypothesi, certainly no elected governments wielding coercive sovereignty over anybody. But humans would still certainly want to coordinate on plans, and in the course of this you would have people who sold each other on plans, people who marketed themselves as especially good people to prudentially defer to or form Schelling points around, and so on. By one means or another, you’d have not-quite-politicians.
And I think any plausible version of anarchy, whether of the anarcho-capitalist variety that Huemer prefers or ones I would, are relatively closer to actually-existing-democracy on this front, compared to the grabworld extreme. (The average normie who hates politicians believes that anarchy would more or less immediately collapse into warlords; and while I don’t know if that position is correct, it’s clearly not a crazy or stupid position for someone who isn’t a politics nerd to have.)
getting back on topic
The goal of this blog is to think about institutional design for post-capitalist civilization. How does this relate to that?
With respect to the principal-other problem, this is just the general argument for a highly egalitarian social order. Of course, I don’t want a democratic vote on what I read or eat for breakfast, but on the infrastructure that we share, the roads and the chemical plants and the communications platforms and the delivery centers and the space elevators and the nuclear power plants, it seems better to have broadly democratic governance rather than private fiefdoms. No original point there; you most likely already agree or disagree with it.
Secondly, if we’re expanding the scope of “rule by politicians” in the sense above, with full awareness of its status as a “worst possible system, aside from all the others,” then reducing principal-agent problems becomes a priority. This can be done through methods such as:
instant recall elections
insofar as people volunteer to be politicians, massively restricting their privacy
No matter how many clever solutions, there will always be people who have special power by the fact that they really want to be playing that role, and are skilled at persuasion - as in grabworld. Until then, we can hope to push towards the grabworld minimum.
if voters are so smart, why are they wrong?
Here I’ve avowed myself a radical with views way outside the Overton Window, but also positioned myself as a defender of the status quo. What gives?
First, there’s nothing contradictory in thinking that someone is in the best position to make a decision, and to give them advice about what it is.
Second, there is the general capitalist domination of the ideological state apparatus, which I think is actually significant, but focusing on it (like other accusations that the cultural deck is rigged against you) doesn’t tend to raise the bar of discussion.
Third, I think people updated over the twentieth century, for rational and empirical reasons, to the general belief that if people voted in socialism that non-electoral means would be put in place to prevent it; and that a socialist movement that survived a civil war wouldn’t survive with democratic principles in place. Thus, the intelligentsia and working class of Europe, then those of the third world, gradually passed away from the thick democratic socialism which had seemed common sense to them at the beginning of that century, by accommodating themselves to more realistic expectations, and then with generational churn forgetting what was possible. (This consideration might still be accurate, or parts of it might have to be revised.)
Fourth, and related to the last point, new possibilities open up with new technologies, and it can take a while for people to adjust.
Fifth, and most fundamentally, however, I indeed don’t know that I’m smarter than the Normie Overmind; indeed know how much smaller and stupider I am than it in almost every dimension. However, that Overmind only works if people don’t defer to it. If everyone assumed the average was right, then the average wouldn’t be based on anything but inertia; instead, the best we can do is note what we would think in the absence of consensus, then offer that as a contribution to the debate that informs the consensus.
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