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Rationally Disenfranchising

March 19, 2010

One topic I’ve posted at length about is the feasibility of actual fundamental change in the nature of our national politics.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that politics, and therefore the American polity, is doomed to fail.  The only varying aspect of most commentators’ prognostications is whether that consequence is attributable to increasing political disengagement, epic levels of brazenness and corruption, impending attacks from the outside in either a military or economic forum, the undermining of American values and identity from within, or whatever other condition of American politics might incite the most fear, hate, or agreement in the hearts of the observer’s audience.

In a recent email exchange, I wrote the following (unedited) response to a request for something inspiring about American politics:

Disclaimer: As an (ex-)libertarian, I am usually inclined to agree with the argument that our politics are inherently structured to fail, which in turn almost irrevocably results in failed policies, both social and economic.  But, since you asked for something inspiring…

It seems that there may be a fundamentally mistaken assumption in the question that presumes that it is government that MUST solve these problems.  Simply think of how many economic problems were solved by the mere invention of the cell phone, for example. By being able to get around government, rather than working with them, farmers and commodities traders have increased market efficiency by orders of magnitude without regard for government subsidies or other forms of market control. Think of forces for social change that achieve great and lasting success by totally sidestepping governmental involvement: the Nobel Prize, the Gates Foundation, gay rights (controversial to list here, but I stand by it in the sense of overall gay acceptance in the community, and marriage is just the latest front of that battle that’s basically been won). People have been able to solve big problems without government throught history. More often, government created the problem.

Moreover, and perhaps even more optimistically, think about how all of the random pet projects that don’t really solve the problems they were originally designed to address have been applied and carried forward by entrepreneurs. The INTERNET was invented because of the crazy military industrial complex’s institutional preferences for the coolest shit. And just think of the immense social ramifications that disintermediated communications have had since. Some random shots in the dark almost seem desirable in light of that history.

The examples of indiscriminate spending having profound second-order effects abound.  The Center for Disease Control, the National Institute for Health and the National Institute for Science (as well as the myriad state run colleges and research institutions) provide the R&D funding for innumerable projects that contribute immensely to our welfare (and in a context where private industry is modeled around leveraging existing blockbusters into maximum profits rather than seeking the next silver bullet). It was in this spirit, I believe, that Obama started dispensing stimulus funds almost blindly, simply hoping they would take root and grow into something bigger somewhere down the line.

In terms of macroeconomics then, I think government’s relationship with problem-solving is non-obvious. In a sense, we might prefer to ask how we solve the problem of government’s predilection for problem-solving. How do we prevent it from acting like a malignant Sheriff of Nottingham rather than a kindly and drunken Johnny Appleseed?

The answer to those questions necessarily lies in the way the population supervises government. Thankfully, the Internet provides immense pathways of transparency, contribution, and accountability (see, e.g., which can sharpen our collective focus on government and make sure that it acts in our best interests. Why isn’t that solution already working then, you ask? Because unlike some of the aforementioned solutions, this one is not self-executing; it relies on an engaged and interested population that thinks engagement in politics is worthwhile. It is therefore no surprise that the current rhetoric about Washington is one of helplessness, gridlock, and despair. If he population feels that engagement would be futile, its interests in participating diminish even further. Keeping half or more of the voting-eligible population disengaged is a highly successful and calculated decision for incumbents, who rely on keeping forces for change from even thinking about politics, let alone acting on those thoughts.

Of course, the flipside to the negativity-disengagement engine is that people like me who do care about politics have to do their job to keep marginal voters engaged and interested in the process, and I’ve almost certainly droned on far too long to have succeeded there.

Indeed, I think the politics of Negativity inherently keeps the politicians entrenched because only those willing to acknowledge that such tactics are all “part of the game” (or those who are oblivious enough to its undesirability) stay in the game long enough to vote.  In order to get the other 50% of the population to vote regularly, we need a massive injection of enfranchisement by looking at politics in positive terms rather than negative.

For one thing, the politics of positivity, hope and inspiration could be used by federal agencies to achieve change by crowdsourcing the private sector for ideas and progress and inducing them to contribute to the polity through incentives and prizes (e.g., grant money, contests, etc.).  This way, creativity and energy are stoked in the private sector and the solutions that arise won’t be owned or hampered by government’s own priorities or goals in an idea’s infancy.

For another thing, I like Tim Harford’s idea of objectively and independently testing government agencies’ performance and efficacy in accordance with principles of the scientific method, as a matter of course and as a way of decreasing the automatic skepticism of government’s claims:

What is missing is the political demand for tests of what really works. Too many policies on education, welfare and criminal justice are just so much homeopathy: cute-sounding stories about what works leaning more on faith than on evidence. Politicians and civil servants, faced with some fancy new idea, should get into the habit of asking for a proper randomised trial. And we, as citizens, should be equally demanding.

It’s no coincidence that one of the few fields of social policy to feature more than 100 robust trials is the study of how to get voters to turn out in elections. Politicians seem perfectly happy to turn to scientific method if it will get them elected. They are less interested in using it for the good of the people they govern.

Then again, maybe Plato was right all along and all we need are a few noble lies:


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