The Problem of Power
One of the key problems with the very idea of government: You hire some people to watch over others to stop them from misbehaving. You have to give the watchers enough power to enforce the correct moral rules. But these watchers are themselves no more moral than the people they are watching over. So what’s going to stop them from using that power to get away with the same sort of immoral acts that they’re supposed to be preventing?
That’s a pretty much insoluble problem within the paradigm of government. But the problem is actually worse than it sounds, because it’s not just that the watchers are humans with the same foibles and flaws as everyone else. Once there are positions of power, the people who wind up in them are usually more immoral, more dishonest, more prone to taking advantage of others, than the people they are ruling over.
Think about the reputation of politicians. They’re not exactly known for being the most honest and honorable people, are they? Quite the opposite. Alongside lawyers, they have about the worst reputation for honesty or honorableness of any profession. (Leaving aside “professions” like thief or drug dealer.) It seems like we’re hiring, maybe not the worst people in society, but people who are far below average, to rule over everyone else.
Some politician jokes:
Q: How can you tell when a politician is lying?
A: His lips are moving.
Q: What's the difference between a politician and a flying pig?
A: The letter "F".
(Edit: To everyone making jokes comparing politicians to pigs, please stop. It's really offensive and disrespectful. Pigs are not all that bad.)
- I parked my car outside parliament. "Sir, you can't park here," said a cop. "This is where our politicians work."
"Don't worry, I've locked it."
Q: What does a politician do when he dies?
A: He lies still.
But how can this be? In a democracy, the People get what they want, right? And voters value honesty above all else, or so they say. (https://theconversation.com/voters-value-honesty-in-their-politicians-above-all-else-new-study-175589) No voter says that they want a dishonest or immoral leader. So why do we keep electing them? And if it’s because the voters don’t know that the people they elect are dishonest, then why do politicians as a class have a reputation for dishonesty? Or if they only find out that the politicians are dishonest after the election, then how come incumbents are almost always re-elected? (Incumbents in Congress are re-elected ~90-98% of the time: https://www.thoughtco.com/do-congressmen-ever-lose-re-election-3367511.)
One explanation is self-selection, i.e., immoral people are more likely to want to be political leaders in the first place.
Why might this be true? Perhaps because a major attraction of the job is the opportunity to exercise power over other people. If that’s a major driver in your life, then you’re probably kind of a bad person.
The other obvious explanation is voter selection. I.e., when offered a choice between a morally decent candidate and an immoral candidate, voters usually prefer the immoral candidate. (Though of course they would deny this.)
Here is my explanation of that: Most voters have certain predictable things that they want to hear. They want to be flattered, to be told that they’re smart and decent and admirable. They want to be told that their country is great. They want to hear that the ingroup is better than the outgroup. They want to hear that our problems have simple, cost-free or nearly cost-free solutions – that, e.g., you can solve poverty by just passing a new law which won’t cost them (the voters) anything. They want to hear that their unreflective prejudices are correct and that people who disagree with them have no good reasons for doing so and are just bad people. They want to hear that a strong leader can easily swoop in and dramatically improve their lives, without having to make any tradeoffs.
The real world, however, does not work that way; what you want to hear is usually not in fact true, and intelligent people realize this. Intelligent and informed people know that there are almost always tradeoffs, that people usually disagree about controversial issues for good reasons, that politicians can’t do that much to improve people’s lives, that our unreflective prejudices are crappy indicators of the truth, and that most human beings are stupid and venal (though not as venal as their leaders).
Therefore, the people who are going to tell voters what they want to hear are going to have to be (i) stupid, or (ii) dishonest (possibly both). And if you elect a person who is happy with a way of life based on telling lies to acquire power, that person is probably going to be pretty immoral in other respects.
Why Don’t Voters Detect This?
Voters say they want honest leaders. The deception I’ve described seems fairly easy to detect. I mean, if someone is always telling you what you want to hear, it’s kind of obvious that they’re not being honest. It should be kind of obvious to a mature, intelligent adult that policy proposals on controversial issues are not likely to be simple with no tradeoffs and no rational reasons for the other side. (Example: If someone tells you he can provide free college for everyone and it’s not going to increase the debt, take away from any other programs, or burden the economy, that person is obviously lying.)
Why don’t voters realize that candidates are lying to them and thence reject those candidates?
One reason is that perhaps average voters are just naïve rubes who can be scammed by anyone with the most basic techniques of manipulation.
Another explanation is that perhaps average voters actually do not care. They might dimly suspect that the politician is lying to them but not care enough to exert any effort to find out. They don’t care enough, for example, to do research on whether the politician’s factual assertions are correct. Perhaps they don’t care enough even to spend ten seconds thinking about whether the politician’s statements are prima facie plausible. The pleasure they get from being flattered by the politician is enough to decide their vote.
(Why don’t they care? You know the answer: wise voting is a public good, and they know the probability that their vote will make a difference is close to zero.)
Why Do Politicians Have a Reputation for Dishonesty?
This still leaves a puzzle. How is it that politicians widely have a reputation for dishonesty, if most people are actually fooled by the politicians? Politicians are simultaneously hated (as a group) and liked (individually). Congress has an approval rating of about 17%, which is terrible. Yet every 2 years, about 98% of Congresspeople who run for reelection win. If we disapprove of them so much, why do we keep reelecting them?
I have three explanations. One, people view their own representatives differently from other people’s representatives. E.g., you think your congressman is good; it’s just the congressmen and women from other districts who are corrupt, lying pigs. Why might this be? Maybe people have a bias just because their Congress(wo)man is from their own district, sort of like how people are biased toward their own family, their own tribe, their own profession, etc. It also could be because we’ve been exposed to our own representatives’ campaign propaganda but not the propaganda from other politicians.
Two, maybe when people say bad things about politicians, they’re mainly thinking of the politicians from the other party. The politicians from one’s own party are okay. Why would this lead to negative statements about politicians as a class? Well, if you have a profession in which about half the practitioners are lying bastards, that’s pretty bad, right? In most professions, the percentage of lying bastards is much lower. The reason why anti-politician jokes are phrased in terms of “politicians” rather than “Democrats” or “Republicans” is that we like to make jokes appeal to a wide audience, so we don’t specify which class of politicians we’re lampooning.
Three, maybe politicians’ reputation for dishonesty is mainly their reputation among elites. It’s the elites of society who recognize their leaders’ dishonesty and then make up jokes about it. Ordinary people, however, are largely fooled and hence keep supporting the liars.
Is there a solution to the problem of immoral leaders?
Well, if you’re a voter, you could try not being a complete fool. You could try thinking for a few seconds about whether it’s likely that a campaigning politician is actually representing things accurately. Don’t just swallow whatever lie you want to believe, or whatever would be convenient for the person who’s talking.
I suppose that over time, average voters might become more sophisticated, thus necessitating more honest campaign tactics from politicians.
But really, the only systematic solution is anarchy. (https://www.amazon.com/Problem-Political-Authority-Examination-Coerce/dp/1137281650)