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Politics is the Mind Killer: Rational Reasons for Being a Political Hack

Politics is the Mind Killer. This is the title of one of my favorite posts on the web. In this post, Eliezer Yudkowsky talks about how people seem to be so irrational when it comes to politics. In two posts, I hope to talk a bit about this.

One way that we exhibit irrationality about politics is by behaving inconsistently. We often come across as partisan hacks. How can we distinguish between a principled person and a partisan hack? This is a tough question. But at least one way is to determine whether one is switching one’s position when the other party is doing the thing one dislikes. Many Republicans opposed large government, but still supported George Bush’s expansion of Medicare drugs. Many Democrats opposed George Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afganistan, but do not criticize Obama’s actions in Afganistan. This makes one look like a partisan hack.

My guess is that these people do not perceive themselves as partisan hacks. If one confronted them with the evidence, how might they respond? One possible justification is that the liberal trusts the liberal President more. And therefore he gives the liberal President the benefit of the doubt. If President Obama is ordering these national security activities, he must have a good reason for it.

Another justification might be that the conservative is less inclined to criticize the conservative President, because he wants the conservative President to remain in office. While President Bush behaved in a liberal way by exanding Medicare concerning prescription drugs, this compromise might have been thought to have been necessary for the President to maintain popularity and stay in office – and therefore to secure other conservative programs.

Thus, there were rational reasons for these people to support their President, even though they might otherwise have disagreed with his actions on policy grounds.

Libertarians are known as being especially principled. While there are many possible explanations for this aspect of libertarianism, one possibility raised by this post is simply that libertarians are rarely in power. Thus, they do not give their leaders the benefit of the doubt and they do not make compromises to stay in power.

In my next post on this subject, I want to think a bit about some of the nonrational or preference based reasons for acting like a hack.

Reader Discussion

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on June 11, 2013 at 09:31:18 am

This post fails to reckon with is the possibility that the devil is in the details. If this is so, all of the discussion here is many orders of magnitude too complex. Do you really think that smart, informed Republicans have a hard time saying why Medicare Part D was a good expansion of government, while Obamacare isn't? Or that smart, informed Democrats have trouble distinguishing President O's national security policy from 43's? If they offer smart explanations while playing for their respective teams, does that make them "hacks"?

Also, "Libertarians are known as being especially principled." Especially among libertarians! This begs the question whether it is really so much better to be a thoroughgoing ideologue rather than a "political hack." (Which in turn begs the question, "better" for what?)

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Philip W
on June 11, 2013 at 09:32:05 am

Sorry, meant to say, "many orders of magnitude too abstract."

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Philip W
on June 11, 2013 at 10:43:34 am

Politics is the home of the Dumb. There are some exceptions but we have come a long way down from the Founders. The semi-literate Andrew Jackson was a precursor of things to come, then on to FDR, who didn't know a principle from Adam. Are Patty Murray & Elizabeth Warren symbols of where we are and where, worse, we are headed? The now forgotten Albert J Nock said there was no way to differentiate politicians from a professional criminal class. Off hand I don't know what he said about stupidity.

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johnt
on June 12, 2013 at 10:46:31 am

This is the sort of pragmatism that has permeated the new American politics of collectivist altruism where principle and individual liberty is waved away in favor of expediency and party power as opposed to speaking and voting for the good of the nation. It is these two morally bankrupt, vile and insidious activities that have contributed more to the corruption of the U.S. Constitution than any other tool of the totalitarian. We have forged and fitted our own chains and sit idly by waiting for our master to call and decide our futures for us in preference to the strain and risk of having to choose our own path of pursuit.

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Richard MacDonald

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