Monday, August 24, 2009

What is the sound of one hand smacking forehead?

I wish I could put my finger on what exactly makes Free Exchange seem to me so ... superficial ... in general, but today's comments about natural selection in politics go in that direction.  The note is mostly a collection of quotes and is hard to excerpt, but you can get a sense of what I mean by reading the deep thoughts that conclude a discussion of why our political system produces moral monsters:

The system is quite disgusting when one steps back and takes a look at it, but there's nothing particularly surprising about it. As best I can tell, this is how things have always worked everywhere.

Jack Handy couldn't have said it better. 

Fortunately, some commentator weighed in with a more useful quote from a James Buchanan book called The Reason of Rules, that looks like it might be interesting.

"[S]uppose that a monopoly right is to be auctioned; whom will we predict to be the highest bidder? Surely we can presume that the person who intends to exploit the monopoly power most fully, the one for whom the expected profit is highest, will be among the highest bidders for the franchise. In the same way, positions of political power will tend to attract those persons who place higher values on the possession of such power. These persons will tend to be the highest bidders in the allocation of political offices. . . . Is there any presumption that political rent seeking will ultimately allocate offices to the 'best' persons? Is there not the overwhelming presumption that offices will be secured by those who value power most highly and who seek to use such power of discretion in the furtherance of their personal projects, be these moral or otherwise? Genuine public-interest motivations may exist and may even be widespread, but are these motivations sufficiently passionate to stimulate people to fight for political office, to compete with those whose passions include the desire to wield power over others?"

I really really wish we would get over being shocked by the moral failings of a completely a-moral machine.  The transcendental field of politics is beyond good and evil.  The important thing is to analyze the actual mechanism, figure out in general which mechanisms produce which results, and try to engineer the rules and meta-rules so we go in the direction we want.  Evolutionary thinking, being a tautology, is true always and everywhere, as Mr. Handy so aptly concludes, but that doesn't mean that it's always applicable to the problem at hand.  The whole point is to design a political system that lacks the feedback loop of natural selection.  Long live Anarcho-Theism.

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