in Ethics

Politics and Attitudes

I’ve already commented (very briefly) on Julian Sanchez’s post imploring people to spend some time trying to understand other people’s views rather than just demonizing them as “the other.” Today, Matt Yglesias adds his two cents. I don’t disagree with anything Matt says, really. But I’m actually far more interested in what Matt’s response says about his attitudes toward politics. Here’s a (slightly longish) snippet:

At the same time, I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

Now as a moral and political theorist whose sympathies are broadly utilitarian, I’m pretty sympathetic to Matt’s conclusion that it’s worthwhile to pay more attention to the moral dimensions of political actions. That said, I’m unconvinced of the wisdom of basing any sort of positive program on the premise that it’ll work just as soon as we convince political agents to ignore their self-interest and work for the greater good.

The fact is, humans are mostly just self-interested. No, I’m not signing on to the psychological egoist’s claim that all actions are self-interested. It seems relatively uncontroversial to say that many actions are (at least partly) motivated by altruistic concerns. Still, it seems equally uncontroversial to say that for most of us, we mostly act in self-interested ways.

So when I put on my moral theorist hat, I try to encourage people to act less self-interestedly and more like good utilitarians. Or at least more like good rule-utilitarians. The question, however, is whether I should do the same thing when I put on my political theorist hat.

When I’m designing political systems, I have two basic approaches. I can (a) design a system that will work well when people behave the way that they ought to behave or (b) design a system that will work well when people behave as they in fact behave. Capitalism, quite famously, is said to take the second approach. Most collectivist systems take the former. Welfare capitalist approaches (aka, what most of the western world is, to varying degrees) more-or-less split the differences, allowing markets to work their wonders and then splitting the proceeds according to some notion of justice.

The U.S. Constitution is likewise (IMO) premised upon something like (b), with various mechanisms in place (see Electoral College, judicial review, and the Senate) to prevent the populace’s baser elements (see Representatives, House of) from running wild. Or, more specifically, the Constitution takes advantage of people’s natural provincialism (i.e., local self-interest) to protect individual rights by making it structurally difficult to pass any sort of radical agenda.

What the Framers didn’t foresee, however, was that people who get elected to office don’t suddenly stop having self-interested feelings. Nor will they cease acting on those feelings simply by virtue of having been given a lot of power. (Indeed, I’m hard pressed to think of an instance in which someone has suddenly Gone Humble With Power!)

So, to come back to the original point, I think that Matt is right to notice that political actors frequently act in narrowly self-interested ways. Indeed, he and I actually share rather a lot of first-order commitments. But I think that a lot of the reason why Matt ends up calling himself a progressive while I end up flirting with the libertarian label is that Matt thinks it’s possible to reform the political system in such a way as to encourage political actors to be less self-interested. I think that’s pretty much a pipe dream.

That ends up leading us to very different places wrt various policy issues. I am inclined toward the view that programs designed and maintained by political agents will inherently end up corrupted, given that those powerful interests most affected will have incentive for rent-seeking while those in charge will have incentive to accept money/power/influence from those looking to profit from regulatory capture. Matt, OTOH, seems optimistic that well-meaning technocrats can construct good programs, if only we have the political will to let them.

And that, I think, is really one of the main hurdles to a liberaltarian alliance. Thoughtful liberals like Yglesias (not, obviously, his commenters) and (on his good days) Klein don’t really start from premises that are radically different from those of a lot of libertarians (Wilkinson, Sanchez or McArdle, say). But we have fundamentally different conceptions of the best method for realizing our shared prior commitments.

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