Let’s stop pretending that politics is about policy

“Food isn’t about Nutrition

Clothes aren’t about Comfort

Bedrooms aren’t about

Sleep Marriage isn’t about Romance

Talk isn’t about Info

Laughter isn’t about Jokes

Charity isn’t about Helping

Church isn’t about God

Art isn’t about Insight

Medicine isn’t about Health

Consulting isn’t about Advice

School isn’t about Learning

Research isn’t about Progress

Politics isn’t about Policy”


The title for this post was sort of cribbed from Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias, which is legendary in certain circles for its focus on signaling (interwoven with the analogous theory in evolutionary biology). Hanson means “X is not Y” in the sense that “while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more”. He talks about this more in this post (from which I got the above), opening with the following example:

“High school students are easily engaged to elect class presidents, even though they have little idea what if any policies a class president might influence.  Instead such elections are usually described as “popularity contests.”  That is, theses elections are about which school social factions are to have higher social status.  If a jock wins, jocks have higher status.  If your girlfriend’s brother wins, you have higher status, etc.  And the fact that you have a vote says that others should take you into account when forming coalitions – you are somebody.

Civics teachers talk as if politics is about policy, that politics is our system for choosing policies to deal with common problems.  But as Tyler Cowen suggests, real politics seems to be more about who will be our leaders, and what coalitions will rise or fall in status as a result.  Election media coverage focuses on characterizing the candidates themselves – their personalities, styles, friends, beliefs, etc.  You might say this is because character is a cheap clue to the policies candidates would adopt, but I don’t buy it.

The obvious interpretation seems more believable – as with high school class presidents, we care about policies mainly as clues to candidate character and affiliations.  And to the extent we consider policies not tied to particular candidates, we mainly care about how policies will effect which kinds of people will be respected how much.

For example, we want

  • nationalized medicine so poor sick folks will feel cared for
  • military actions so foreigners will treat us with respect
  • business deregulation as a sign of respect for hardworking businessfolk
  • official gay marriage as a sign we accept gays, and so on.

This perspective explains

  • why voters tend to prefer proportional representation
  • why many refuse to vote for any candidate when none have earned their respect
  • why so few are interested in institutional reforms that would plausibly give more informed policies. 

In each case where X is commonly said to be about Y, but is really X is more about Z, many are well aware of this but say we are better off pretending X is about Y.”

Pretense, in full knowledge of potential consequences?

This might be trivially obvious to some. To them I can only say that I wish I knew this when I was younger and literally believed that while people might not really mean what they say in some contexts, stuff like policymaking whose consequences could potentially affect the quality of life of entire populations certainly couldn’t be one of those contexts: that would have been brain-damaged stupid. 

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One thought on “Let’s stop pretending that politics is about policy

  1. Given the seemingly inextricable connection between respect and social standing, and through social standing, a whole panoply of socioeconomic and political considerations from housing affordability to minimum wage to LGBT rights to religious freedom and freedom of speech and so on, it certainly fits, but it excessively underestimates the basic utility of policies, something that should be obvious to any tax paying citizen. To regard politics as principally about popularity is gravely mistaken i think. It assumes that income disadvantaged people who vote for populists who support income transfers, progressive taxation and ideas like the EITC, for example simply do so, so that they feel more respected, or that businessmen support a neoliberal politician who believes in laissez faire’ policies simply because he or she is “popular” instead of increased profits and access to a free market. Voting for someone who is respected misses the point, it ignores the justification for that respect, which is sound policy and good character. Do you actually think people care more about a leader’s popularity or his overseeing of the National Budget? All of the examples ( nationalized medicine, military actions etc.) given, do NOT adequately study the relative importance between the practical, and its utility in social signaling.

    The author’s charge that election media coverage is about politician’s character and interests does not square up with my experience at all. For example, to really see such a thing in action, you need only look at the East Asian phenomenon that is “Idol Culture”, where pop stars regularly blog about their daily menial on goings, and get magazine write ups about their favorite foods or colors. Does the media talk about candidates’ characters leading up to the election or do candidates engage in debate on policies? Is talking about candidate character even a valid signaling method, as opposed to actions?

    This can be extended to the cliched example of the prerequisite of popularity in school elections. Something easily caricatured i might add. A student is popular for a number of things ; good looks and sociability but also due to intelligence, courage and assertiveness (in regards to leadership skills) and to extracurricular activities. Notice that a number of those traits are of direct practical utility. Simply put, popularity comes with all the traits associated with being a good leader, however to say people vote on popularity is to conflate the cause with the effect.

    However, of course, a lot of superficiality exists in the realm of politics, which are mutually exclusive to the intelligence and skill set necessary to oversee such a complex problem as leading a country. These would include demagoguery, oratory skills, amiability, and even physical traits (there is a positive correlation for example, between height and election success according to a study or two conducted in the USA ; with the all important caveat that correlation coefficients are NOT the same as effect size. then of course there’s the usual halo effect, for example in the context of facial expressions or attractiveness).

    The statement “The obvious interpretation seems more believable – as with high school class presidents, we care about policies mainly as clues to candidate character and affiliations.” , i find extremely silly. Instead, i find character to be a clue of a candidate’s policies. The policies are the end point. The citizenry vote for politicians to extend THEIR opinions on what policies should be legislated and enacted. Simple as that. For example, there are certain personality types associated with say, conservatism or libertarianism. That’s intuitive enough.

    A simple sign of all this, is to see what politicians talk about in the media. A whimsical approach or two (something Obama uses for example) certainly helps, but a president is not a jester or Kim Kardashian. Consider as well, HOW a politician climbs the political ladder. It necessitates social skills, some superficiality but also sound policies and his or her service to his people. Popularity comes after the fact.

    Finally, in the realm of the social sciences, there must be some distinction made about who we are talking about here. How elections are voted for and what parameters they are based on, are a function of how functional that democracy is. I’m not just talking about election fraud (malapportionment, vote buying etc.) but a more insidious kind, that of freedom of speech and information and even standard of education (critical thinking). Demagoguery in times of social strife for example, can plausibly lend itself to a more emotional and character based approach (for example Ayatollah Khomeini or Adolf Hitler ; both used clear policies as vehicles of course, but i’m talking in relative terms here, or to use a more extreme example, Kim Jong)

    Liked by 1 person

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