Americans can get into a tizzy over politics. They complain about gridlock or bad laws or the other party or too much foreign intervention or too little. They think the System is broken; they cry, “Something should be done!” But it’s hard to get general agreement on just how to fix it.
There are several reasons why such a quest might be pointless. Consider:
- Politics is zero-sum: In Game Theory, a zero sum is a result where wins and losses balance out. In politics, as in sports, every victory by one side results in a loss for the other. It’s one thing to pass defensive measures against burglary and murder. It’s quite another to tax a group of citizens to pay for a second group, or to forbid late-night carousing or drugs or sex or 20-ounce drinks: these efforts please one side but infuriate the other. Sure, most voters get what they want in any given case, but all voters feel violated by the many laws that turn against them. What’s worse, the administrative costs of governance are huge, so that the outcome is less than zero: it’s negative.
- Force doesn’t work: We can’t make people be good. We can’t force citizens to be virtuous. We can’t legislate a single set of behaviors that everyone prefers. Meanwhile, when we attack other nations, even for good reasons, we sow chaos and resentment and incur huge costs. The more we fight, the less safe we become. With force we can move the pieces around, so to speak, at great expense, but the game doesn’t advance. Yet we persist in believing that political action will unleash a giant flyswatter that will permanently slap down our opponents. We ignore the real costs of government, which today consume about half the American economy.
- Winners have perverse incentives: Political victories usually lead to new legislation — and sometimes entire new bureaus or departments — which creates a dilemma: if the regulators do their work well, the problems get solved and their jobs get reduced or eliminated. If, on the other hand, regulators screw up, they can blame their budgets: “They didn’t authorize enough money to get the job done!” Since no legislator wants to take the blame, and none want to repeal laws they fought so hard for, they nearly always appropriate more funding. This happens year after year, so that it costs more and more to get less and less benefit. What’s more:
- Government keeps getting bigger: The bigger it gets, the more it attracts those who hunger for power; these politicos, in turn, pump up the system to give them yet more control. (Witness, despite Constitutional controls, Congress passing any law it wants, or presidents usurping arbitrary executive power.) It’s a vicious cycle, and the public pays for it with diminished prosperity, increased interference in their lives, and loss of security.
- Politics becomes more corrupt: As power centralizes, special interests show up bearing wrenches of money that twist power toward their own ends. Legislators must debase themselves for campaign funds. Our quest for honest representation turns into a farce.
- Big government makes us childlike: Every decision handed over to politicians juvenilizes us, until we’re like whiny kids who tug on our bureaucratic parent’s arm for attention. We fall back to begging and complaining; we degenerate into victimization; we regress into sibling rage against our fellow Americans.
- Increased power causes increased polarization: As more and more decisions get centralized, more and more of us join the political fight for control of the national culture. We come to regard other citizens, not as honored fellow patriots, but as evil and/or depraved. The dream of a unified country goes up in the flames of political discord.
In effect, the more politicized our culture gets, the more out of control the country becomes.
Most attempts at a fix involve further political force — a campaign of reform, a new party, street demonstrations, civil disobedience, revolution. These are efforts to replace current governance with a better version. But this is like trying to reform a drunk, or cure cancer by making the patient more comfortable. It doesn’t get at the root cause.
The root cause is our own desire to dominate our fellow humans. We love to feel offended by others and to campaign to suppress them. It feels good to punish our opponents, the way licking chapped lips feels good at first. Politics thrives on resentment and indignation. Politicians flourish on our anger; they feed on our impatience; they grow fat on our frenzy for forced change. But in the end it is we who are punished.
Politics will wither when we lose interest in it. When we stop trying to change others, or to reform bureaucracies in the vain hope that they’ll manage our fellow citizens more efficiently, then the problem will solve itself.
Yes, there is trouble with politics. The trouble is us.
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