Why On Earth

My friend Kristina, lamenting about turning into a political scientist, asks one of her hallmark tough questions in her blog. She writes:

I was sitting there, Ian's dad was driving and Ian was in the front seat, and they were listening to Rush Limbaugh (or someone equally as awful) talking about the bailout. And Rush, Ian, and Ian's dad were all commenting on how bad an idea it is, and how if the big companies are getting bailed out then why can't we all get a check, and how the free market is really the best way to handle everything. I always stay quiet during these sorts of commentaries, because it just really never turns out well, but all of a sudden, I bust out with . . .

"The thing is, Rush Limbaugh isn't asking the right question."

They both give me blank stares.

"The real question isn't whether we should bailout the companies or not. The real question is, if we assume that you are correct and that laissez-faire free market policy is really the most efficient way to fix the problem, then why on earth would anyone propose a bailout plan in the first place?"

In context, Kristina was really just using this to make the point that studying political science has altered her ability to discuss 'real world' questions. Her question, however, of 'why on earth' is very interesting. Why would someone propose a plan that won't work, or at least won't work well?

First, I'm more than willing to assume that a free market policy is the most efficient way to fix economic problems, primarily because that's how I see it. If someone can show me where socialist polices actually work to "fix" any economy I'll reconsider my position, but for now we'll just go with the fact that free markets work.

Now, let's turn to the big question ... why propose a bailout, or to make it more current, a 'stimulus spending' program?

It could be that those proposing a spending solution are simply ignorant. To completely rule out ignorance you must also assume that they are actually trying to solve the problem, an admittedly big assumption, but perhaps they are just unaware that free market policies work. One would think that with unlimited access to intelligent resources and the well documented histories of economic catastrophes of all sorts that the decision makers would clearly see the correct solution. And even if they didn't, surely the opposition would desperately try to educate them. They shouldn't be able to claim ignorance, but that doesn't mean they aren't being intentionally obtuse.

So, if they aren't stupid, are they being malicious? I enjoy a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone, but I don't see any reason to suspect that all of our leaders are The Manchurian Candidate. Individually a politician could act maliciously to subvert a rival or inhibit debate but it's hard to imagine a set of conditions where an entire course of action is taken simply to deal harm to another. Then again, just because it's difficult to conceive doesn't mean it can't happen.

So they might be ignorant, and they might be malicious. They might also simply be greedy bastards ... there might be something in it for them. That certainly fits with normal human behavior; we tend to be self-interested. It also fits with political behavior ... who cares about principles, constituencies must be happy to get re-elected! Self interest, just being greedy, sounds logical. Why propose an illogical or inefficient solution? Because it assures me of some power or status or security, which makes sense in almost everyone's world.

The greed isn't necessarily personal. Perhaps they are advocates, true believers, of an alternative, though inefficient, solution and feel that humanity will be best served in the long term by moving to this other, non-efficent method. The selfless warrior, fighting for the morally correct but logically flawed solution ... I've seen people operating in that mode. They might say, "I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing this for future generations!" and see themselves as advancing the cause with pure motives, not those base motives of selfish profit and power.

If the question is 'why on earth would anyone propose a plan that won't work?' these are some credible explanations. They might be stupid or malicious though they are more likely to be greedy, either for themselves personally, or for some ideological cause. But a another question remains. People don't normally choose to be seen as stupid or mean or greedy. Why would they act in a manner that highlights these unattractive characteristics? The answer to that is simple ... they are arrogant.

Their arrogance prevents them from acknowledging alternative solutions to the problem; their ignorance is by choice. The maliciousness is disciplinary, not mean-spirited; they are the tough, but benevolent, parent. If it's personal greed, they deserve to be rewarded. If it's for "the cause" then they are making the sacrifice of service. It's inconceivable that they might be wrong which is the curse of being part of the academic, intellectual and moral elite. They are the girl you knew in junior high who was hot, and knew it. It is, no doubt, an incredible burden ... and one mere mortals can not possibly understand.

I'm not a political scientist (they intimidate me); I'm just an observer, and this is what I've seen. Liberals who propose socialist solutions rail against the stupidity of conservatives, the mean-spirited and cold-hearted individualists who oppose welfare and handouts and the greed driven profit motive of capitalist right-wingers and "Wall Street", whoever they are. I think they protest too much. I've noticed that what we complain about in others is often what we dislike about ourselves and I think their complaints are telling. I suppose I'll be forced to admit my own arrogance here, since that seems to be the thing that truly irritates me about the liberal elites, but like my sister used to tell me (when she was in junior high), "It's not that I'm conceited, it's just that I'm convinced."

1 comment:

  1. A political scientist would answer this question in this way:

    A politician has one primary goal. One goal that they must accomplish above all other. That goal is reelection. You could say politicians' goals are policy change, or seniority in Congress, or lobbyists that provide them with coffee mugs and weekend getaways in Borra Borra, but in order to accomplish any of those, they must first be reelected.

    Therefore, every decision, every policy choice, every vote is all made with the idea of reelection in mind. They have to please their constituencies so that their constituents will vote for them.

    Perhaps this first and foremost goal is greedy or selfish (maybe they should care about what's best for the country first?), but that's a "normative" statement. Us political scientists don't say "should". We don't care about what's "good" or "bad", we care about what "is".

    Now, if a Congressman's constituency is full of 75% people who have lost their jobs (whether through their own laziness or through circumstances beyond their control, doesn't matter), those people probably are complaining. They can't put food on the table to feed their children, their houses are being foreclosed, their cars are repossessed. They're generally very unhappy. And unhappy people do not reelect their Congressman.

    Therefore, the Congressman must do something to make them happier if he wants to accomplish that #1 goal. And in this case, the Congressman is voting for an economic stimulus plan. He can turn to his constituents and say, "Look, I'm DOING something about this! I'm working to make your lives better!" And ideally, his constituents say, "Thanks!", but not in words, in votes. He gets reelected.

    This works in any district. If it's a district like, say, Detroit, where almost everyone works in the auto industry, the way to make those people happy is to bail out the auto industry. So of course that Congressman is going to vote for it.

    In your district, your Congressman is probably voting against it, and he's saying to his constituents, "Look, I voted against this crap. Those crazy Democrats passed it. Be mad at THEM not at ME! Now, vote for me and I'll try to undo this Socialist mess!"

    Congressmen call in favors, they work in coalitions, they do all sorts of things to get policies they want, but it all comes down to reelection.

    Now, the next question for the political scientist is this: do people really know how their Congressman voted? Do YOU? What was the last bill your Congressman voted for, and which way did he vote? If you know every vote he's done recently, then you're in the supreme minority. How do Congressmen get this information to their voters? Ah... that's a blog post for another day...