In Defense of Politics: A Response to Bryan Caplan

There are few economists smarter than Bryan Caplan, whose efforts to apply economic analysis to political phenomena have produced breakthrough insights, none more than his pioneering Myth of the Rational Voter (2007). But higher authorities also command deference. Aristotle is one. He warned in Book II of his Politics that political life is not reducible to an economic problem. Caplan’s recent post at Law and Liberty’s sister publication, EconLog, illustrates why.

In “Apolitical Reasons to Hate Politics,” Caplan professes hatred, with emphasis in the original, for “the way people think about politics.” Hate seems like a strong emotion, especially since the first fallacy of which he accuses politics is hyperbole. It leads him to offer political actors two stark choices: “speak literal, measured truth or be silent.” Of course, “literal” truth is not always “measured”—sometimes the dress does make one look fat—especially when one is trying to persuade large crowds of complex ideas.

Caplan similarly detests “Social Desirability Bias,” the “all-too-human propensity to lie when the truth sounds bad.” Examples: saying “We have no choice” when we really do; saying “X is unacceptable” when what is really meant is that one would prefer much more than X. The problem, writes Caplan, is that letting “Social Desirability Bias rule our diction” risks allowing it to “corrupt our thinking as well.”

He is surely right that language can corrupt thinking. But what seemingly lies behind Caplan’s complaint is a conception of politics as a purely technical, rationalistic enterprise directed at finding objectively correct answers to clearly definable problems. Yet politics is about social life. It requires the accommodation of people and groups to one another. At its noblest, it is about the attainment of human goods that are not economically quantifiable.

This recognition is absent from the overly economic analysis on which Caplan bases his complaints, the next being “the innumeracy of politics. People should focus on what’s quantitatively important, not what thrills the masses.” One wonders whether Caplan (see “hyperbole” above) might be attentive to the possibility of other categories besides the quantifiable, on the one hand, and the demagogic, on the other.

There are all manner of human goods—love, virtue, beauty—to which numbers cannot be put, unless one wants to play the question-begging game of assigning utility functions to those, too, and thus claiming public choice theory to be capable of explaining everything and, consequently, nothing.

Caplan’s hatred extends further to “overconfidence: People shouldn’t make claims they won’t bet on, and shouldn’t assert certainty unless as they’re willing to bet everything they own against a penny.” Churchill, then, can stand aside. His wholly improbable claim of Britain’s being able to stand successfully alone against a Nazi empire in the full throes of conquering Europe was a sin against rationalism. Or not: Confidence serves purposes in politics, not least the fact that it can fulfill itself. When circumstances warrant it, that is called statesmanship.

Some of the points Caplan makes are, to be sure, reasonable. “People should strive to be fair to out-groups, and scrupulously monitor in-groups,” for example. We should resist the false assumption that “winning proves I’m right.” Fair enough. But Caplan’s final hatred—reserved for “the excuses people make for each of the preceding evils”—overlooks the fact that many of what he calls evils, such as smoothing literal truths with measured rhetoric, might be positive goods.

That depends, to be sure, on how one views the problem of politics. If it is a technical problem, exclusively given to technical answers—one in which the quality of prudence is not the “first of virtues” but instead disposable because unnecessary since all controversies can be arithmetically resolved—then departures from the hard edge of axiomatic reasoning are less excusable. But if politics is understood to be a phenomenon of social life, it requires prudential judgment and a capacity for subtlety.

That is not a reason to hate politics. It is a reason to love it. With apologies, then, to Bryan Caplan:

I love politics because it challenges people to accommodate themselves to a public good that transcends individual appetites. People should be willing to pursue goods other than their own.  Aristotle said those who did not need to—who could live without the city—were “beast[s] or god[s],” the implication being that they were either undesirable or non-existent among men.

I love politics because it connects generations in the contract Burke described between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Madison wrote to Jefferson that while the earth may belong to the living, “the improvements made by the dead form a charge against the living who take the benefit of them.” Politics thus reminds us of the obligations we bear not just to one another but to the past and the future.

I love politics because it emphasizes concrete attachments, not just abstract reason, and thus operates in a realm in which feeling and not the antiseptic coldness of pure rationality governs. Burke, observing the destruction of France at the hands of philosophy, observed: “With such things before our eyes our feelings contradict our theories; and when this is the case, the feelings are true, and the theory is false.”

I love politics because at its noblest, it emphasizes the humility of those who prefer experience over abstraction and custom over novelty. “Like Midas,” Oakeshott writes, “the Rationalist is always in the unfortunate position of not being able to touch anything, without transforming it into an abstraction; he can never get a square meal of experience.”

I love politics because as Tocqueville teaches, politics reminds us of our debts, not just our independence. “Man,” according to Bertrand de Jouvenel, “is first and foremost, a debtor.”

I love politics because it is not reducible to numbers, because it opens a frontier where disagreement is joyously interminable.

That is not to say politics is perfect, which is, indeed, another cause for love. Politics has blots. There are demagogues and scoundrels. There are imprecisions and unintended outcomes. And yet: There is attachment and sacrifice, nobility and judgment, and maybe, just maybe, some possibility of a human good. God help me, I do love it so.