“As the leader of a think tank dedicated to public policy, I would love it if Americans were as obsessed with policy as I am.”
(Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute)
Can politics become an addiction? A more realistic question is to ask why politics is an addiction for so many people. The most straightforward answer would be that a compulsive interest in politics just reflects a natural preoccupation with advancing one’s interest (or that of others). But as was discussed in the previous installment, The Calculus of Voting, as general rule, politics is not a very effective means to advance one’s interests. Could it be that the identification of advancing one’s interests and engagement with politics reflects tribal instincts? As Hal Finney writes on the blog Overcoming Bias:
We have this instinct that choosing our Leader is as important to our lives as it was when we were a tribe of two dozen, and that we have similar influence over the result. Following elections and participating in politics activates these vestigial tribal instincts in much the same was as sports, with similarly futile results.
Such an explanation helps in reconciling the mysterious discrepancy between the empowerment voters experience when engaging in politics and the actual power it confers to them. If during most of mankind’s existence there was a strong relationship between participation in small-scale decision making and individual consequences, it should not be surprising that we have evolved to be “political animals” and that such instincts are even triggered in elections where millions of people vote and where most individual goals can be more easily gained by non-political individual acts.
It is interesting to note that the changed scale in human interaction does not produce similar effects in markets. Being a consumer of a product or service does not become more futile when more people consume the good. A company can grow to serve millions of individuals in different nations and supply and demand generally ensures that one gets what one chooses. In his book Social Contract, Free Ride:A Study of the Public Goods Problem, Anthony de Jasay even argues that the absolute size of a group is not directly relevant to the rationality of voluntary contribution to public goods.
Although much ink has been spilled over political bias in the media, one rarely encounters the opinion that the media devotes too much attention to politics as such. Most people who shape public opinion and write for a living seem to share the Aristotelian vision of political participation as salvation. As William C. Mitchell and Randy T. Simmons write in their book Beyond Politics:
Participating in the political process is seen as a way of lifting oneself above the crass self-interest many believe characterize market transactions. In this essentially Aristotelian vision people are not able to reach their highest potential unless they participate in the political process. In fact, such participation is deemed necessary for human moral development.
But as public choice scholars have pointed out, the nature of man does not change as soon as he enters the political arena or takes office. Perhaps it even brings out his worst traits or selects for the people that have them. The short-term and divisive nature of everyday politics seems to be a very fertile ground for fanaticism and biased reasoning.
The desire to engage in political battle and to see one party as the enemy is so strong that, as Bryan Caplan speculates, people tend to ignore the absence of any real differences in public policy between the major parties for the sake of enjoying the illusion of a partisan rift:
So what is the “key difference” between the parties? Rhetoric. When Republicans advocate a small contraction of the welfare state, Democrats claim that Republicans totally oppose the welfare state. And many Republicans oblige them by standing up for “liberty” and “responsibility.” Similarly, when Democrats advocate a small expansion in the welfare state, Republican claim that Democrats oppose free markets. And many Democrats oblige them by saying things like “markets only benefit the rich.”
This rhetorical illusion is so powerful that when a Democrat like Clinton adopts many pro-market reforms, Republicans still hate him as a 60s radical. And when Bush II sharply expands the welfare state, Democrats still hate him as a billionaire’s lackey.
The observation that people can get so excited about rhetoric despite minor differences in public policy does not bode well for the view of politics as salvation or as a source for wisdom or personal growth.
Although one would expect the views and temperament of people who advocate a de-politicized society to steer them away from a strong engagement with practical politics, a surprising number seem obsessed with everything political. It appears that the tribal instinct to engage in politics and strife does not necessarily exclude people who claim that society would be better off without it.
Some of the most remarkable examples of such libertarian obsession with electoral politics were displayed during the Ron Paul campaign. For example, self-identified libertarian anarchists were observed to continuously monitor the primary elections results and blog the latest results online. But when Ron Paul failed to win the primaries, many of his advocates returned to advocating non-voting instead.
Although campaigning to vote for a politician on one occasion and advocating non-voting on another may reflect just pragmatic political strategy, such a mixed message risks leaving people profoundly confused. In some respects it is also incoherent. The orthodox economic argument that in large democracies an individual vote has a very low probability of deciding the outcome does not change when Ron Paul runs for office.
But perhaps the most persuasive argument against resorting to politics is one of opportunity costs. All the time that has been spent in vain to political campaigning and producing handbooks to persuade politicians to refrain from being politicians could have been spent on the creation of private alternatives for government, education of the general public, and legal assistance to people who are faced with government interference instead. One does not have to subscribe to the view that voting is an immoral act to agree that “if one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”
Further reading: Carl Watner (ed.) & Wendy McElroy (ed.): Dissenting Electorate: Those Who Refuse to Vote and the Legitimacy of Their Opposition
This is part 2 in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.
Part 1: The calculus of voting
Part 3: Beyond politics