Politics in One Lesson

by Roger Koppl

It is better to signal goodness than to do good.

That’s it.  That’s the lesson.  (Thanks to Steve Horwitz for the title of this post.)  Democratic politics is mostly about signals not substance.  The lesson is simple, but somehow hard to learn.

Okay, okay, I admit that’s not really the One Great Lesson From Which Everything Else Follows.  First of all, I’m talking about democratic politics in more or less normal times.  Even then, power matters quite apart from signaling.  Adam Smith was right to talk about a human  “love of domination and tyrannizing.”  Knowledge matters quite apart from signaling.   Sincere do-gooders who think they know better are at least as dangerous as the ordinary knaves Hume warned us against.  And I would never pretend to have improved on Madison’s great lesson from Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”  Nevertheless, signaling always matters in politics.  Most of the time, democratic politics is mostly about signaling.  Mostly we try to signal goodness.  This lesson applies to both sides of the ballot box.  On the voters’ side, we are mostly engaged in “expressive voting” as Brennan and Buchanan have clarified.

Why bother voting when you vote has essentially no chance to tip the balance?  You vote to express yourself.  Often, you are expressing a set of values that send a signal to yourself and others that you are a good person who should be trusted in social exchange.  I vote for the X Party because I am a good person with the right values and I deserve to be recognized as such.  It’s a bit like Vaclav Havel’s greengrocer in the old Soviet system who posts a sign saying “Workers of the world, unite!” to get along.

Politicians also signal goodness. Somehow, it is hard to learn that politicians are interested in signaling goodness, but not interested in doing good.  Even otherwise highly sophisticated persons become ensnared, somehow, in the pleasing but empty rhetoric of one party or another.

What “goodness” consists in varies from one constituency to the next.  Thus, we have heated debates over the signals without much difference in real policy choices made.  Senator Obama, for example, signaled his superior respect for civil liberties, the rule of law, and the US Constitution.  But President Obama has been a nearly perfect disciple of his apparent idol, George W. Bush.

The Republican Party signals goodness in part by talking up free markets.  In substance, however, it is pro-business not pro-markets.  I cannot really understand why so many classical liberals are strongly attached to the Republican Party unless it is because they mistake that party’s pro-market rhetoric for pro-market substance.  They should learn that politics is about signaling goodness, not doing good.

The Democratic Party signals goodness in part by talking up equality, especially racial equality.  In substance, however, it supports policies such as the minimum wage that are disproportionately harmful to black Americans.

A plague o’ both their houses.

26 thoughts on “Politics in One Lesson

  1. LOL, so many classical liberals are proud members of the Republican Party because when classical liberals are to be found in Congress, they are Republicans. It’s really that simple. The party, on average, is pro business vs. pro free enterprise as you say. Quite right. But they do win hearts and minds with the rhetoric and it’s obvious that people like Rep Jeff Flake, Rep Ron Paul, Sen Jim DeMint, Rep Cliff Stearns can be found. Even Sen Coburn.

    You might not like some of their foreign policy, but where free enterprise defenders can be found, they are indeed Republican. It may be in YOUR interest to conflate the two parties, but there is certainly a meaningful difference between them.

  2. Hear, hear! The Republican Party has hardly distinguished itself in the health-care debate. They have throw-away lines about interstate competition for insurance and malpractice (the latter not being the problem they say it is and not a federal issue), but they have largely accepted the Democrats’ ideas about preexisting conditions, guaranteed issue and renewal, etc. An echo, not a choice. They look like the party of big business.

  3. Mr. Richman makes a good point. If Republicans truly wanted some of the health care reforms they claim, why didn’t they enact them when they had a majority? Throw away lines indeed.

  4. Roger–What is the difference between “signaling goodness” and “having different understandings of what will produce good outcomes”?

    1. “Signaling goodness” implies that voters *know* that their votes don’t really matter, and that they *know* that their favored policies won’t really do any good.

    As a political scientist I will simply rely on an argument from (my) authority here: both claims are false. Voters do not know these things.

    But I would ask you, as an economist, to give us your evidence that voters *do* know these things. Or are you simply imputing to them what you (think that you) know?

    2. What is “Austrian” about the “signaling” view? The signaling view implies that voters are omniscient about the odds against their votes counting and about the actual effects of the policies they favor.

    Wouldn’t an “Austrian political science” have a slightly less mainstream neoclassical flavor, such as this?–

    What is crucial in democratic politics is that the effects of public policies in a complex order are difficult to discern, so voters can easily disagree about–and easily be wrong about–how to do good?

    I.e., the crucial problem with democratic politics is a “knowledge problem.”

  5. Jeff,


    Do you really mean “omniscient”? What is to know? Everyone knows that he is just one of milllions — or whatever the relevant number is.

  6. Mario–I mean omniscient about the fact in question, *and its implications*.

    What is your evidence that everyone knows it? If they knew it, they would not vote.

    The survey evidence shows that most people do *not* know it. This makes sense, given the barrage of propaganda from kindergarten onwards that “every vote counts.” Moreover, it’s not like this propaganda is obscuring a self-evident truth. Economics is counterintuitive, including Downs’s Economic Theory of Democracy.

    Incidentally, I’ve taught the irrationality of voting many times, and I can personally testify that the vast majority of my students had never before thought about the implications of their being “one of millions.” Admittedly, Ivy League liberal-arts majors aren’t a representative sample of the electorate. On the other hand, Ivy League liberal-arts majors are far more likely than average to become political activists, politicians, and journalists. If you leave them out of your “politics in one lesson,” you aren’t describing real-world politics. You’re describing politics as if citizens “knew” what economists know about the irrationality of voting.

  7. I don’t think I follow you, Jeff. On why we vote, I’m just citing good old Brennan & Buchanan, which is pretty standard stuff. I’m not denying the knowledge problem as applied to democratic politics. Indeed, I always insist that the knowledge problem supports Humean status quo bias, which should temper our deregulatory fever. I’m with you, Jeff. But we should not imagine politicians are more interested in doing good than in signaling goodness.

    I can only guess what your argument from authority points to, but I suspect it’s just slicing reality at a different point. I mean the phrase “vote really matters” has many meanings. You ask for my evidence contradicting your view without laying the view out clearly enough to do so, I think. I don’t think I denied that people somehow think “voting matters.” Nor did I say people think their preferred policies won’t work. I just followed Brennan & Buchanan in pointing out that they respond to incentives. Voters think “voting matters” enough to go and vote and yet they remain rationally ignorant of the effects of different policies. In such a state of rational ignorance, they prefer the policies that signal goodness.

    Saying all that does not deny that people will tell pollsters in all sincerity that “voting matters” and, e.g., rent control helps the poor. As you know, the Westie study (Westie, Frank R. 1965. “The American Dilemma: An Empirical Test,” American Sociological Review, 30: 527-38) is but one of many recording the fact that lots of white people in the 60s would sincerely report their belief in equal rights while denying that black people should be allowed to move into the neighborhood. People tend to follow their incentives and preferences without careful regard for logical consistency.

    None of this touches your point that the world is complex so that serious people can disagree on policy. I don’t think I denied that either. I just said that it is better to signal goodness than do good. For voters, that follows from the low stakes. They are rationally ignorant and thus prefer policies that signal goodness. For politicians, it follows from the *high* stakes. Only those will survive who are effective at signaling goodness while in fact concentrating benefits and dispersing costs.

    Finally a word on “Austrian” views. If the truth as I see it should not conform to “Austrian economics,” then so much the worse for Austrian economics. I mean, really, you know, Ellsworth Toohey and all that.

  8. Roger–Naturally, “Austrian” does not equal “correct.” But I do think it’s worth considering that your sources, Brennan/Lomasky and Buchanan, are using straight Chicago school analysis. Rational ignorance is not the only form of ignorance, and in politics–as in economics–there is no reason to think that it’s more important than radical ignorance.

    Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not quite accurate to say that your sources “point out” that people respond to incentives. Rather, they *assert* that people respond to incentives; and more importantly, they *assume* that people *know* the “incentive structure,” which in this case is the extreme unlikelihood that their votes will affect outcomes (whether electoral or policy). Buchanan and Brennan/Lomasky are *not* “standard stuff” among political scientists, because political scientists, who are familiar with endless shocking findings of public ignorance, and find that that assumption is laughable. Political scientists also notice that people vote by the hundreds of millions, which, to oversimplify a bit, decisively falsifies the BB&L thesis.

    Similarly, your assertion that “we should not imagine” that politicians care more about results than signaling begs the question. Why would someone become a politician (or vote) if they didn’t imagine that they could thereby do some good? If they care about doing good, then they do have to signal this (or something else that is popular) in order to get elected–but that is a means to the end of doing some good. For you to “imagine” that really, their main interest is in power and payoffs is to make an a priori assertion about an empirical question.

    A “politics in one lesson” that leaves out ideological motivation has virtually no connection to political reality. Think about Barack Obama. He could have graduated from Harvard Law School and become a successful lawyer very easily, and a tenured position at the U. of Chicago Law School was offered to him. He also could easily have stayed with being a successful author. But he chose to become a community organizer, and when that didn’t change the miserable conditions on the South Side of Chicago he went into politics to effect “change.” You could tell an “incentives” story about this, but only by torturing reality. And I’m not even mentioning the reality of the type of changes he is instituting. If one doesn’t see ideological motivations in his behavior, one is leaving out (I assert) the most important element of modern politics.

    Where I’m coming from is that I have taught many people like Obama (who in fact was a Columbia political science major, but long before I got there). I know them to be sincere ideologues. (And I know that “we” are, too!) And it sickens me that instead of trying to understand their motivations and the ideas that make them disagree with us, we prefer to dismiss them using the same simplistic “model” of human behavior that Austrians have so successfully criticized in the economic realm.

  9. P.S. Roger, re-reading your original post makes me withdraw the implication that you don’t recognize the role of “sincere do-gooders,” i.e., ideologues, in politics. But in light of that, I wonder what the value is in a Lesson that reduces politics to signaling, *as if* the signalers are not sincere.

  10. Again, Jeff, the lesson is, “It is better to signal goodness than to do good.” This lesson does not deny the existence of sincere do-gooders, it is true. But it tells us to expect lots of bogus signals of goodness. As I noted in a comment above, “Only those [politicians] will survive who are effective at signaling goodness while in fact concentrating benefits and dispersing costs.” Sincere do-gooders rarely survive long in elected office, occasional exceptions notwithstanding.

    “It is better to signal goodness than to do good.” The lesson is simple, I think, but somehow hard to learn.

  11. Jeff,

    Small point probably, but you can’t go from if they knew it — the smallness of their impact — to the conclusion that then they wouldn’t vote. That assumes (or maintains) the disputed hypothesis that they they vote to affect the outcome rather than express themselves.

  12. Roger–Since we’re making a priori assertions about empirical issues, would you not agree that, cet. par., the most successful signalers would tend to really believe in what they are signaling?

    While I am at it, I’ll dispute that the lesson is hard to learn. It is by far the most popular, intuitive thing that people think about politics: “Politicians are liars.”

    Mario–You are right of course. I should have said, “Why would it make any more sense for a voter to cast one out of a hundred million ‘expressive’ votes than one out of a hundred million ‘instrumental’ votes?” The statistics remain the same: a single vote no more expresses anything than it is instrumental to affecting the outcome, once it is washed away in a sea of millions of other votes.

    Or I should have said: “How plausible is it to think that voters say to themselves that they are *merely* signaling by voting?” That may be plausible to economists, but there is no evidence that it’s true, and it doesn’t meet the Verstehen test for noneconomist voters, in my experience.

  13. Let me pick up the particular case of Obama, Jeff. If he is good in substance, why are his policies so close to Bush? Why did his administration argue (futilely) before the Supreme Court that the right of habeas corpus does not apply to prisons in Bagram? And so on. I am disappointed — bitterly disappointed — in Obama. But I am not really surprised. Obama is a politician and only those politicians will survive who are effective at signaling goodness while in fact concentrating benefits and dispersing costs.

    I am a do-gooder, I confess. In my forensic-science do-goodery I meet lots of other do-gooders. I’m glad they are there. I believe in their sincerity. I see it. But not one of them is an elected official!

  14. Roger! I did not say Obama is “good in substance.” I said that the world he and we are trying to understand is not so pellucid that what is good in substance is self-evident to anyone (although everyone tends to think that their views = self-evident truths). He may be good, bad, whatever in substance depending on whether you agree or disagree with him.

    Do you see how the neoclassical view irons legitimate disagreement out of the picture, just as it irons out entrepreneurs who disagree with each other–some thereby losing money while others make it? If objective reality is self-evident, then policy errors (“bad on substance”) could not be sincere.

  15. Jeff,

    I am trying to be clear, but it seems I’m not doing a good job. Let’s simplify a little. Consider the following to statements:

    1) People sure tell a lot of lies.

    2) The truth is hard to know.

    It’s sort of like I keep saying 1) and you keep saying 1) denies 2) and 2) is true. The truth, of course, is that people sure tell a lot of lies *and* the truth is hard to know.

    “It’s sort of like,” I said, because signaling is not necessarily lying. In particular, voters cannot send a signal of goodness to themselves if they think the signal is a lie. I hope my simplified version will nevertheless clear up the basic argument.

  16. Yes, Roger, but the question is why we should emphasize as our One Lesson about Politics something that (1) everybody already does “know”–that politicians lie; and something that (2) we have no reason to think is very important in explaining “what’s really going on” in politics–or in explaining what I infer is your true dependent variable, negative policy outcomes. In short, this Lesson doesn’t teach anything new, and it may not teach anything true.

    By suggesting that it’s false, I’m not saying people or politicians *never* lie. I’m pointing to your very accurate statement of your claim (1): People tell “a lot” of lies. By implication, you’re claiming that people’s lies are of a more important magnitude (whether in frequency or important) than truth telling. Now: is that true of “people” generally? I.e., would you say that “Psychology in One Lesson,” or “Human Behavior in One Lesson,” is that people are usually lying, or that they are usually lying when it comes to the most important things?

    If so, I think you are paranoid.

    My experience is that people tell “a lot” of inconsequential lies, a few consequential ones. But they also order their lives and most of their behavior around their sincere convictions, especially when it comes to politics, religion, and ethics. They may in some cases have to tell a lot of lies in order to achieve their sincerely desired goals. But that does not justify emphasizing the lying over the sincerity as the most important thing they do.

    Is it true to say that the One Lesson we need to know about Obama on health care is that he’s “signaling” his compassion for those without health care–as if he doesn’t really care about those people? That is how people would apply your One Lesson. But we have no reason to think that it’s true, and every reason to think that it’s false.

  17. Since Roger and Jeffrey appear to this reader to be talking past each other to some extent, perhaps I can shoulder the dangerous and thankless task of trying to pinpoint the precise nature of the disagreement.

    It seems that Jeffrey is protesting about what he takes to be Roger’s reliance on Public Choice reasoning — when Roger talks about voters’ “rational ignorance” Jeffrey assumes that this refers to a choice not to investigate based on full and complete knowledge of the possibilities. He wants instead to emphasize well-intentioned behavior operating under radical uncertainty. This same emphasis applies to politicians; what Jeffrey’s point seems to be there is that Roger’s phrasing seems to imply deliberate seeking to concentrate benefits and disperse costs with full knowledge of all the options and potential outcomes.

    Now, I doubt if Roger means those things as stated (he’s not unfamiliar with radical uncertainty!) — perhaps his phrasing is misleading. Probably he gave Brennan/Buchanan more weight than it could carry. But, charitably interpreted, I think both are pretty much on the same page but emphasizing different paragraphs.

  18. Thanks for that contribution, Thomas. I must confess that I’m pretty much flummoxed by Jeff’s commentary. There is what seems to be 1) his model of what I mean and there is 2) what I mean. I seem to have failed completely to get 1) reasonably lined up with 2). I don’t see how to push the discussion forward. I thought my last simplifying post would help. I carefully said “sort of like” and emphasized the fact that signaling is not equal to lying. But to no avail. Now it seems Jeff views me as a paranoid or something. Oh dear.

    Perhaps you are right, Thomas, that Jeff is responding to my use of Brennan & Buchanan and that my exposition seems to lean too heavily on their work. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that I just don’t see Buchanan-style public choice as all that “neoclassical.” Anyway, shame on me if I seem to deny radical uncertainty. I have made some passing reference to it here and there over the years, as you note! Many thanks to you if this line of discourse helps to clear things up.

  19. Yes, Thomas, you have nailed it as far as I’m concerned. Yes, the invocation of Buchanan and Brennan/Lomasky is sure to raise the ire of a political scientist (as opposed to someone who uses economic models to understand politics)–or at least my ire.

    Roger–I don’t think I’ve ever met you and I haven’t read any of your work. But that’s not the issue raised by your post. The issue is, as Thomas suggests, whether Public Choice is (a) accurate + important enough to be made into the One Most Important Thing about politics; or (b) inaccurate (that’s not my view, so “sort of” accurate makes no difference); or (c) accurate but trivial. My position is (c). Lying, logrolling, interest groups, etc. are not the most important things about politics and they should not be portrayed as such; corruption, to put it broadly, is very important in the Second and Third Worlds, but not so much in the First).

    Roger, you may for all I know have made radical ignorance the center of your own research. That’s great or not great depending on the accuracy and nontriviality of the research. But when it comes to politics, which I gather has not been the focus of your research, I don’t see how you could possibly think that lying as THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON ABOUT POLITICS is consistent with radical ignorance being the most important thing, rather than just being somewhere down the list, along with an infinite number of other factors that affect politics.

    Not that a priori, radical ignorance has to be important. But it does seem to be more consistent with evidence of sincere ideological behavior on the part of people in politics who disagree with each other–and thus, some or all of whom must be ignorant of something important UNLESS THEY ARE LYING and they really know the truth.

  20. Jeff,

    Now you seem to impute to Thomas an opinion he did not express IMHO, namely, that you are all right, that I am all wrong. But maybe I’m starting to see where the real problem lies. It seems “the invocation of Buchanan and Brennan/Lomasky” has raised your “ire.” The mere “invocation” gets your goat? Could that really be the central issue here, Jeff? I confess it would leave me nonplussed if that’s the issue.

  21. C’mon, Roger. You “invoked” them as your only “evidence” that your one lesson is *true and important.* That’s what invokes my ire.

    I’ve said what I have to say, but I don’t know why I even try. Perhaps I’m “signaling” annoyance at the foolishness of taking it for granted that because Brennan and Lomasky (and Buchanan) assume things, they are true. Anyway, if anyone cares to know why one might think this One Lesson should not be “taught” as such, you’ve received all I can teach about that.

  22. Thanks for linking to my site (in the quotation “a plague o’ both your houses.”
    The site will soon change domain names, from “clicknotes.com” to “shakespeare-navigators.com.”

  23. Would anybody be willing to try and explain how Friedman’s critique differs from Buddha’s critique? Buddha’s critique was that we are all just blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. My guess is that Friedman’s critique is the same as Buddha’s critique…but I could be wrong.

    If anybody is interested…my ONE political/economic lesson is pretty much the same as Buddha’s lesson…A Taxpayer Division of Labor.

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