Inside the twisted minds of politicians


I too find it hard to get inside the heads of politicians, and I don’t find rational choice assumptions very illuminating in this regard. By insisting that politicians are motivated by considerations no different than businessmen or anybody else, public choice economists have helped slay the pernicious myth that politicians are generally warmly other-regarding public servants. But the economist’s assumption of motivational uniformity fails to capture that politicians do in fact seem to be really odd people who don’t seem to be primarily motivated by the same considerations that motivate most of us most of the time. The incentives of the political process create a kind of filter that selects for individuals extraordinarily fixated on power and status and extraordinarily motivated to keep it. If this is right (anyone know of personality studies of politicans?), then the problem with standard public choice is that it gives too much credit to politicians by assuming they’re like everyone else and therefore it fails to capture just how exceptionally prone politicians are to narcissism, motivated cognition, self-deception, and brazen lying.

The idea that to be a politician requires you to be funny in the head is something that I’ve never quite been able to articulate before, but it seems obvious once stated. But for me, the issue is subtle. I can’t quite reach the level of incomprehension displayed by Yglesias (who prompted Wilkinson’s post):

If some weird situation somehow resulted in me becoming a United States Senator, I would spend six years making trouble, having fun, and trying to do the right thing. Probably I’d lose a primary or something since I wasn’t bothering to raise money or campaign. Then I’d right a book about it.

I think it’d be a blast. And I think that’d also be the totally intuitive way to handle the situation.

I’ve certainly fantasized about somehow getting into Congres and “making trouble, having fun, and trying to do the right thing.” But taking it to the point of throwing away re-election chances I’m not sure I could do. Because I’ve always been tempted by the thought “if only I had political power, I would make so much better use of it than those who currently have it.” And I’m amazed that Wilkinson and Yglesias, who’ve based their careers on the idea that they have something worthwhile to say about public policy, talk as if they’ve never had this thought.

What separates me from politicians? In college, I met a guy who I had much in common with, including concern for the public good and a desire for rational policy backed up by actual understanding of science and skepticism. But from the first day of freshmen year, he had his mind made up to go into politics, and I had mostly made up my mind to avoid politics. Why? Because by that time, I had understood for years that the way most people use political influence was evidence that, no matter what I thought, I’d probably end up using it in a similar way. He dismissed the thought as cynical. Early in freshmen year, it became clear he was making decisions based on political expediency–identifiable present decisions for imagined future expediency.

But I doubt all the differences between me and my college acquiantence are examples of what makes politicians weird. My instinct for deception also seems abnormally low, perhaps a part of a nerd’s obligatory social awkwardness. I instinctively recoil from the small deceptions that are the currency of social life. It’s been an intellectual labor trying to convince myself that they’re often the right choice. I wish could lie more naturally under certain circumstances–for example, when, during part of my summer, I needed ways to dismiss obnoxious Tunisians trying to sell me this or that. And in spite of recognizing all this, my instinct in any debate (like framing) is to opt for the more honest position.

Another blind alley is to think that there’s something odd about politicians failing to realize that certain things are wrong. Failing to realize something is wrong is the easiest thing in the world, it just has to not occur to you. This is why moral dissonance exists in literature. Rationalizing away bad behavior is also easier than some people seem to think. What’s unnatural about thinking “if I give in to the Death Book crazies, it will increase my effectiveness on the things that matter”? (Or, circling back to Yglesias: “if I cause just a little less trouble in the next six years, I buy myself six more years to cause trouble.”)

Where the real weirdness of the politician’s mindset comes in, I think, is here: all the things I’ve been talking about involve egotism, naivette, and compromise regarding worthy goals. But in order to do that, you have to be able to convince yourself that your goals are worthy. And many current government policies are not only massively bad–beyond “necessary evils” rationalizations–but also boring–so boring that most people wouldn’t be able to conjure up the energy to convince themselves that black is white in those cases. It’s one thing to convince yourself that we should punish the bourgeoisie for their crimes, but how do modern U.S. senators convince themselves that massive corporate welfare, paid for by the public credit card, is a good idea?

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  1. It’s been my contention that politicians *are* different than you and me. Whatever it is that makes them seek out public office – the fact that they want power so badly – seems like a very good reason in itself they should not be trusted with it.