How mean are politicians? This book says “very”

The second volume in Bryan Caplan’s series on his EconLog blog post collections asks How bad politicians are? Libertarian Caplan’s answer: very, although some people might be more inclined to use words like “naive” or “irresponsible.” Caplan, who holds himself and others to very high moral standards, is deliberate about his use of the word “evil” for a captioned volume Essays on demagoguery and wearing a blanket reminiscent of George Orwell 1984 in mind. This is obviously intentional; Orwell’s influence is apparent throughout this book, and Caplan is explicit on p. 56: “George Orwell had a huge influence on me.”

But aren’t politicians just naive, or perhaps irresponsible? Their naivety and irresponsibility makes Caplan’s eyes hurt. It sets a very high epistemic bar for the aspiring philosopher king who wishes to order others, even for their own good. He is right to do so. I quote Adam Smith:

“The statesman who would attempt to direct individuals in the manner in which they should employ their capitals would not only burden himself with the most unnecessary attention, but would arrogate to himself an authority which could be safely trusted, not just to anyone in particular, but to no one. any council or senate, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who has enough madness and presumption to believe himself fit to exercise it. (The Wealth of Nations IV.2.10).

Caplan explains how “statesmen” (and stateswomen) time and time again fail to prove themselves worthy of the authority and power they crave. As Caplan says, “If you are able to pass or enforce laws, lives and liberty are in your hands. Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral concern at all times, always aware of the possibility that you are violating the rights of morally innocent people” (p. 8). Moral and epistemic standards are higher if you believe you can direct the lives of others.

Politicians can be sincere, but sincerity is no substitute for understanding. As libertarian author Sheldon Richman explained, doing economic policy while totally ignoring basic economics is the intellectual equivalent of drunk driving. Doing it once is irresponsible. Driving drunk repeatedly and unrepentantly through school zones as the kids go out might earn the word electronic.

Like with Labor Economics vs. the World, How mean are politicians? is divided into four categories. Part I explains how “evil rules the world”. The second part introduces us to A Litany of Evil. Part Three lays out Caplan’s “pragmatic pacifism,” which I’d really like to see him explore in a serious, scholarly book-length treatment. Finally, Section IV asks the question “How good is freedom?”

“Demagogy“says Caplan, “is the politics of social desirability bias(p. 18, emphasis in original). He then describes “The Heart of Social Desirability Bias: Certain Types of Claims sound right or wrong regardless of the facts.” Social desirability bias is embedded in the names of many regulatory bodies and pieces of legislation. Who could be against Equal Employment Opportunity? Or Fair housing? Or Reduction in inflation? Social desirability bias builds philosophical and political systems on the sandy ground of wishful thinking. People’s opinions on things like the minimum wage, for example, are informed by secret mental substitutions. People who think about minimum wage may not understand “the elasticity of labor demand” and so “they mentally substitute easier questions like, ‘Would I be happy if employers gave workers a raise? unskilled? (p. 36). Mental substitution then makes it easy to demonize minimum wage skeptics by deducing that they would be sad if low-skilled workers got raises.

I see this quite regularly in public discussions of “sweatshop” work. Too often, anti-sweatshop crusaders seem to think that the “advocates” of sweatshops believe that sweatshop labor is a cosmic good for the people who do it, as they no longer deserve and could be sweetened by higher wages. higher and better working conditions. The real argument is that sweatshops are often the best of the really bad alternatives, so shutting them down actually makes the situation worse for the workers themselves. This, however, does not lend itself to effective grandstanding.

Caplan’s argument for “pragmatic pacifism” applies his analysis of demagoguery and incitement to war. Many arguments for war seem to go no further than wishful thinking that the world would be a better place if terrorism, racism and other horrors simply disappeared overnight. I can’t imagine anyone condoning serious disagreement. If I could get rid of terrorism with the snap of my fingers, I would. Of course, that’s not how war works. Caplan explains that the costs are immediate and horrific while the benefits are much later and extremely uncertain. Too often, future benefits are simply desired and belligerents do not always foresee what will happen the day after their victory. Caplan makes this point in reference to one of the bloodthirsty characters in game of thrones:

“He has no master plan to bring great good out of great evil. Instead, he has a master plan to do great evil, driven by vague wishes do great good. Proverbially, however, if you don’t plan, you plan to fail.

The same criticism applies, he argues, to American leaders who were unsure of what would happen after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. How mean are politicians? does what Caplan has done so well over the years: challenges our wishful thinking and pleasurable fictions with calm, cold analysis and an insistence on comparing what we hope for to what we can reasonably expect – and, therefore , he offers wise advice: stop listening to demagogues.

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