How Not to Care About Politics

Adam Ozimek thinks I’m crazy. With respect to the presidential election in 2012, I wrote on Twitter that I’m “Pretty much indifferent between Palin / Bachmann / Obama / Romney / Huckabee / Gingrich / Trump. I won’t lose any sleep no matter what.”

I should be clear that I’m not indifferent to the outcome on any given policy matter. I am a pretty radical libertarian; I have clear policy views. Nevertheless, over the past few years I have cultivated a serene detachment from day-to-day politics. I don’t vote, and I don’t worry. Here are five reasons why.

The importance of politics is overrated

I was persuaded of this point by Steve Davies, who gives a fascinating lecture on non-political perspectives on history (one version of the lecture is on YouTube, highly recommended). Most of the history that you learn in high school is political history, a history of power: kings, presidents, wars, revolutions, and so on. But taking a commercial or economic perspective on history can show you how much politics has been oversold. Davies shows that, for instance, the invention of mass production, the shipping container, the birth control pill, and the Internet have been arguably more important over the last century than any presidential election.

This is not to say that individuals cannot do tremendous damage by political means. R.J. Rummel estimates that 262 million people were killed in the 20th century by their own governments, and of course governments have killed millions of foreigners as well. This is a good reason to be anti-government. But I’m not persuaded a priori that any of the candidates I named is likely to be significantly less destructive than the others. And I’m optimistic about our ability to flourish through commercial innovation no matter who you guys elect in 2012.

The Good vs. Evil story about politics is not true

As Tyler Cowen says, be suspicious of stories. It’s tempting to think about contemporary politics as a story of good guys versus bad guys. Whether the dichotomy is political parties or cosmopolitan versus provincial, people like the good versus evil story because we are biologically programmed to respond to it. Politicians have an obvious incentive to say that they are one of the good guys and their opponents are bad guys.

But who are the good guys in American politics? I look around and I see lots of people wanting to impose their values on others. Even many libertarians, who nominally say that they don’t want to impose their values on others, seem to want to impose libertarianism on the public through electoral victories. That is no way to treat unwilling minorities. It’s not that politicians are especially evil, either, though I do think that politics attracts a certain megalomania. Mostly, politicians of all stripes are ordinary, flawed, misguided people.

Recognize that a) stress kills and b) you can’t make a difference

It would be one thing to get worked up over politics if by doing so, you could affect political outcomes. But the odds of casting the decisive vote in any election of consequence are vanishingly small. It would be more probable to get struck by lightning on two consecutive days. And there are so many voices in political discourse that you’re nearly as unlikely to make a difference there, even if you are a respected blogger.

Even though few of us can make a political difference, many of us get worked up over politics. This is damaging to our physical and mental health. I worry that one particularly apoplectic econblogger, a talented economist, will literally die suddenly of a stroke. We’re much better off if we can recognize that for better or for worse, we have very little control over what happens politically, and there’s no reason to get stressed out about it.

Politicians often can’t act on their preferences

If there is any issue that motivated the 2008 presidential election, it was George Bush. Obama ran on a platform of “change,” and I believe that he was sincere. Nevertheless, we are still in Iraq and there is still a prison at Guantanamo, at which military tribunals will be held. Furthermore, Obama has opened up a new front in Libya. “I have decided to repeat George Bush’s mistakes,” mocks Ryan Young.

Events can be simultaneously absurd and inevitable. The fact is that Obama faces all kinds of political and institutional constraints in the execution of his role as president. There are not as many degrees of freedom as it may at first appear. Adam emphasizes the discretion that presidents have, and undoubtedly they do have some. But if Obama can’t even close Guantanamo, something that I believe he really wants to do, then the presidency probably matters less than people think.

The logic of reoptimization

One useful way of thinking about politicians is that they want to tinker with prices. They raise the price of some goods by taxes, regulation, or outright bans, and lower the relative price of other goods through subsidies, i.e., raising the price of everything else. Different politicians want to tinker with prices in different ways, and many of them want to undo many of the tinkerings of their predecessors.

If a politician wants to raise the price of something that I consume and lower the price of something I don’t consume, that makes me immediately worse off. But once I reoptimize for the new set of prices, I may be only slightly worse off, or perhaps even better off than before. I can consume more of the thing of which I used to consume less. For this reason, even bad politicians may be less harmful than they at first appear.

Worst case scenario, I’ll reoptimize to another country. Probably such a move would make me worse off (or else I would do it now), but it still places a real limit on how much the president is likely to harm me. I am probably more elastic in this respect than most Americans, but nevertheless if the worst possible outcome is that you move abroad, something that many people do voluntarily every year, it’s not that hard to relax about politics.

I invite you all to join me in serene detachment from politics. You will worry less and have more time to spend on other pursuits. What do you have to lose?

14 replies to “How Not to Care About Politics

  1. Eric

    I’m very disappointed that you didn’t include Ron Paul in your list of potential Presidents…

  2. Peter

    The fact that you’re trying to persuade other people to join you in your voluntary ‘detachment from politics’ proves that at least subconsciously you acknowledge (and hope!) that one’s public discourse can make a political difference. That is, of course, correct, but it highlights the flawed logic of your argument. Ideas matter, and so do men and women who promote them on your and my behalf in the political arena.

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  4. Eli Post author

    Peter, there’s a big difference between trying to persuade someone because it will be better for him, and trying to persuade someone because it will be better for me. I write this post not to make a political difference (it won’t make any difference at all), but to offer people a better life for themselves.

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  6. Adam

    I think I agree with just about every word of this post. I used to spend a ton of time blogging about politics, years ago; but this post’s rationale is why I’ve basically stopped writing about it altogether.

  7. Barry

    “Davies shows that, for instance, the invention of mass production, the shipping container, the birth control pill, and the Internet have been arguably more important over the last century than any presidential election.”

    Let’s start with FDR. Right there Davies is full of it.

    Then move to Nixon. His ‘split the country and get the bigger part’ strategy has been the constant strategy of the GOP ever since; we still have influential people who got their big start in his campaigns (e.g., Roger Ailes).

    George W. Bush. Having Gore in 2000 would have clearly made a huge difference, with the only question being how big. Having any decent Republican in 2000 would have also made a huge difference.

  8. Eli Post author

    Barry, we can’t observe the counterfactual. Simply pointing out that some people held office and that there were changes that happened afterwards does not tell us much about the marginal effect of those people. If FDR had never existed, probably the Democrats would have nominated someone else who would have done many of the same things.

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  10. Arthur

    “But taking a commercial or economic perspective on history can show you how much politics has been oversold.”

    That’s why I always tell people the greatest thing Marx was done was “Historic Materialism”, but people who don’t like Marx don’t listen, and people who do like him, would rather go with the economic or political theory instead of history methodology.

    But you can’t never forget that institutions matter, and politics can shape them. They don’t only tinker with prices.

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  12. Horapollo

    The problem for most libertarians is that they’re still religious prosthelytizers who want to make themselves feel better by conscious-salving non-efforts (protesting, voting, talking to stupid people about economics). It’s a big fucking self-congratulational wank fest that accomplishes nothing but inviting morons to shit in your tent.

    Fuck Republicans, fuck libertarians, fuck politics; anyone stupid enough to support the State and its tribal underpinnings deserves everything they get. No sympathy for untermenschen.

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