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How Evil Are Politicians?: Essays on Demagoguery
by Bryan Caplan (Bet On It Books, 2022)
If you are a libertarian, or just someone with a streak of skepticism about government, you will enjoy and profit from reading How Evil are Politicians? The author, Bryan Caplan, is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He has written several very worthwhile books (my favorite among them is The Case Against Education, an iconoclastic book that challenges the foundations of the education establishment) and blogs with profusion.
This book is a collection of Caplan’s short writings on a wide variety of topics. The common thread is the damage done by government. Most of the chapters are just two or three pages, filled with deep insights about the nature of politics. Libertarians will find their arguments fortified and extended; defenders of statism will be shocked at the author’s ability to detect the weak spots in their belief system and tear them apart.
Let’s start with the book’s title. Most Americans find fault with politicians they perceive as being “on the other side.” Democrats say that Republican politicians are ruining the country, and Republicans say that Democrat politicians are doing the same. But Caplan argues that by and large, they are all evil. Why? Because they fail to perform due diligence to find out if government is making society better off or (as is usually the case) worse off. Caplan sharply admonishes all politicians: “Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times, ever mindful of the possibility that you’re trampling on the rights of the morally innocent.” But almost no politicians ever perform this “intellectual hygiene” and therefore “have no business lifting a political finger.”
Strong stuff, but Caplan is right. Politicians rush in to legislate, mandating this, outlawing that, subsidizing things they favor, and taxing away the earnings of the people to pay for all of it — not to mention their hefty salaries. When was the last time you heard a politician utter a mea culpa for having done things that were clearly harmful? I’m unable to think of any such instance.
Caplan shines in his ability to highlight the flaws in democracy. Consider, for example, his discussion of “social desirability bias.” Here’s what he means: “Some types of claims sound good or bad regardless of the facts.” Count on politicians to go along with measures that sound good (such as Social Security) even if they are demonstrably bad. Conversely, politicians will oppose measures that sound bad even if there is a mountain of evidence that they’d actually be good. Repealing rent control laws, for example, sounds heartless, so they remain in force despite the fact that they do immense harm to the housing market.
And exactly what is demagoguery? Caplan’s answer: “Embracing Social Desirability Bias to gain power. Making a career out of praising what sounds good and attacking what sounds bad.”
Democratic and Republican politicians come in for Caplan’s scorn equally. The differences between them are merely rhetorical. Republicans talk about their concern for taxpayers, but it’s mere rhetoric. If they really cared about the government’s burdens on taxpayers, they would work for dramatic cuts in government spending. They don’t. Democrats rail against big business, but do they stop the many policies that line the pockets of firms that support them? No.
Speaking of rhetoric, Caplan cuts through the verbal smokescreens that politicians so often employ to hide their intentions. We are almost always seduced with “bleeding heart” talk about how the politician wants to help needy people. Alas, his real goal is power — he wants to employ the mailed fist of government to transform society to his liking, which happens to include putting himself at the top. This is one of the means by which, as Hayek put it, “the worst get on top.” Most politicians, whether dictators like Hugo Chavez or your garden-variety American official, are “power lusters” who are good at manipulating people.
A number of the chapters in the book help nonstatists respond to common statist arguments. (It’s clear that Caplan spends a lot of time thinking through arguments and counterarguments on a wide array of issues.) For example, suppose that you have said that national parks ought to be privatized. A typical retort would be, “If you had your way, only the rich would have access to our beautiful parks.” How would you respond?
Caplan suggests several counterarguments. You could point out that poor people can afford many things that aren’t “free” from government by prioritizing their purchase. Boats, for example, must be purchased in the market, but poor people can still get boats if they really want them. This has the added benefits of encouraging work and thrift so people can get things they want through commerce. If the national parks were private, they might cost more, but poor people who really wanted to go to Yosemite could forego other things until they could afford it — and poor people who didn’t think it so important could save for other things.
Here’s another public policy issue that Caplan has thought about — the minimum wage. In particular, he asks why it is that politicians who say (with the hearts bleeding) that the minimum wage absolutely must be increased, but gradually.
Why not go to the full new level immediately? The answer is that there will be negative effects from the wage increase, and the politicians know it. They want the credit for their supposed good intentions but none of the backlash that could result from job losses among low-skill workers. Here’s how Caplan analyzes matters: “But what if you’re a ruthless demagogue, pandering to the public’s economic illiteracy in a quest for power? Then you have a clear reason to prefer the subtle to the blatant. If you raise the minimum wage to $12 today and low-skilled unemployment doubles overnight, even the benighted masses might connect the dots…. As long as the new minimum wage takes years to kick in, any half-competent demagogue can find dozens of scapegoats for the unemployment of low-skilled workers.”
This article was originally published in the May 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.