Gene Healy, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute in DC, is pretty much over politics:
I have a confession to make: Even though it’s my job to write about politics, I didn’t watch a single second of the Republican or Democratic conventions — not even a YouTube clip of Clint Eastwood talking to the chair.
I’ve long found electoral politics seedy and dispiriting, but that sensibility has lately become a debilitating affliction: like being a sportswriter struck by the unhelpful epiphany that it’s silly for a grown man to write about other grown men playing a game for kids.
These days, when I tune in to ABC’s “This Week” looking for a column topic, I can’t even make it past the first commercial break. Like Peter says to the management consultant in “Office Space,” “The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy; it’s that I just don’t care.”
Politics makes us worse because “politics is the mindkiller,” as intelligence theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it. “Evolutionary psychology produces strange echoes in time,” he writes, “as adaptations continue to execute long after they cease to maximize fitness.” We gorge ourselves sick on sugar and fat, and we indulge our tribal hard-wiring by picking a political “team” and denouncing the “enemy.”
What Healy is talking about is mostly elections and the actual governing process. He cites fellow Catoites Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus, who write in their Libertarianism.org essay “Politics Make Us Worse”:
Yet the increasing scope of politics and political decisionmaking in America and other Western nations has precisely the opposite effect. It’s bad for our policies and, just as important, it’s bad for our souls. The solution is simple: when questions arise about whether the scope of politics should be broadened, we must realistically look at the effects that politics itself has on the quality of those decisions and on our own virtue.
Politics takes a continuum of possibilities and turns it into a small group of discrete outcomes, often just two. Either this guy gets elected, or that guy does. Either a give policy becomes law or it doesn’t. As a result, political choices matter greatly to those most affected. An electoral loss is the loss of a possibility. These black and white choices mean politics will often manufacture problems that previously didn’t exist, such as the “problem” of whether we—as a community, as a nation—will teach children creation or evolution.
This behavior, while appalling, shouldn’t surprise us. Psychologists have shown for decades how people will gravitate to group mentalities that can make them downright hostile. They’ve shown how strong group identification creates systematic errors in thinking. Your “teammates” are held to less exacting standards of competence, while those on the other team are often presumed to be mendacious and acting from ignoble motives. This is yet another way in which politics makes us worse: it cripples our thinking critically about the choices before us.
What’s troubling about politics from a moral perspective is not that it encourages group mentalities, for a great many other activities encourage similar group thinking without raising significant moral concerns. Rather, it’s the way politics interacts with group mentalities, creating negative feedback leading directly to viciousness. Politics, all too often, makes us hate each other. Politics encourages us to behave toward each other in ways that, were they to occur in a different context, would repel us. No truly virtuous person ought to behave as politics so often makes us act.
I honestly think it’s a lot worse than that.
It would be one thing if it were merely confined to politics. Unfortunately, it isn’t. As the government has grown, it’s tendrils have inserted their way into every facet of our society. Philosophies and attitudes that were confined to the halls of power in Washington have gradually, over the past three or four generations, circulated throughout the country.
The rise of cronyism and corporatism has destroyed the hard work ethic in this nation. Where once you were expected to be rewarded for hard work, now you’re rewarded for ass kissing. It’s no longer how competent you are, but who you know. It’s no longer about your skill in getting the job done, but your skill at navigating office politics.
There’s also the tribalism, the organizing yourself onto teams, and the viciousness we treat the other. That might just be inherent human nature, but capitalism has brought us so far in the past couple of centuries that it should, by all rights, break down these walls completely. Unfortunately, we have seen capitalism usurped by the aforementioned cronyism and corporatism, where instead of success being contingent on satisfying others’ wants and needs better than anyone else through skill, it is contingent on how much you bribe someone else and use force to beat your opponents.
I see it all the time, though perhaps that’s because I live and work in the nation’s capitol, the epicenter of this madness, the most wretched hive of scum and villany. I have to be careful who I have drinks with, because if I am seen with someone who is not liked by another, there goes my chances of getting a job or being able to pay my bills.
I hate this. I also think its bad for our society at large, both on moral and pragmatic grounds. Morally, this is wrong, because it turns us away from rewarding the hard worker and towards rewarding the thief, the shyster, the one who creates no real value but through deception and political maneuvers weaves an illusion that it he is the one who should get the gold. It’s nothing short of robbery. Pragmatically, it drains our resources from going to more productive uses—ie, creating value—and puts it towards far less productive uses—bribery, bootlicking, and idiotic one upmanship.
The 2008 financial crisis already showed us what it results in. Everyone else in the country had to pay for the idiots in the housing industry by bailing them out. Using politics, failed banks were able to get rewarded, while everyone else who played by the rules and were productive was punished. That is in no way to run a country or an economy, unless you want to run it into the ground.
I’m not going to say that politics is the cause of all of society’s ills. Those high school jerks are probably always going to be jerks, and we’ve had racism around for a lot longer than we’ve had the overencroaching nanny corporatist state. But what good values we have are dissipating because we’ve all started to think like lobbyists and politicians, and so instead of trying to do our best, we just want to stomp on the other guy’s neck.
This is what politics has done to us. It has made us worse, not better, as a society and as a nation. We must end it’s pernicious influence…before it ends us.