Can politicians think?

When you’re in Washington D.C. to talk about thinking, as I just was, the conversation inevitably turns to the political implications of the topic. I have admitted that the chief impetus of this book was the ever-increasing hostility and (often malicious) misunderstanding of one another that became one of the chief themes of the 2016 Presidential election here in the U.S. and of the debate over the Brexit referendum in the U.K. And when I have meditated on these unpleasant social developments and their impact on thinking, I have usually focused on the behavior and the cognitive peculiarities of the voters. But what about our politicians themselves?

This post by Ilya Somin raises some interesting questions in that regard. Its primary question is whether the government can be trusted to “intervene to protect people against their cognitive biases, by various forms of paternalistic policies. In the best-case scenario, government regulators can ‘nudge’ us into correcting our cognitive errors, thereby enhancing our welfare without significantly curtailing freedom.” But, Somin asks, doesn’t that “best-case scenario” depend on our elected officials, the maker of those policies, being themselves shrewd and fair-minded thinkers?

Which is a problem. Somin:

Politicians arguably have stronger incentives to learn about politics than voters do. Their decisions on policy issues often do make a difference. But because the voters themselves are often ignorant and biased, they tend to tolerate – and even reward – policy ignorance among those they elect. Politicians have strong incentives to work on campaign skills, but relatively little incentive to become knowledgeable about policy. It is not surprising that most do far better on the former than the latter.

And the news gets worse:

Politicians aren’t just biased in their evaluation of political issues. Many of them are ignorant, as well. For example, famed political journalist Robert Kaiser found that most members of Congress know little about policy and “both know and care more about politics than about substance.” When Republican senators tried to push the Graham-Cassidy health care reform bill through Congress last month, few had much understanding of what was in the bill. One GOP lobbyist noted that “no one cares what the bill actually does.”

(See helpful links in the original.) All this raises for me an interesting question: Who will nudge the nudgers? That is, let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether we should have paternalistic, nudging sorts of laws to correct our biases and give us incentives to become more knowledgable about the questions we must, day-by-day, decide. What can be done to correct the biases of our elected officials, and to give them incentives to become both more fair and more knowledgable?

In How to Think I argue that there is no point in telling people to think for themselves, because that is neither possible nor desirable. We always think with and in relation to others — and often trim our thinking to meet the approval of others — so the real questions that face us involve the construction and maintenance of thought-environments. Some of those environments are cognitively healthy — they encourage serious reflection — and those tend to be ones in which we can become genuine members of a group; others strive to rule us through the stick of threatened exclusion and the carrot of promised insider status, and those profoundly discourage thinking. (You can read about the former in C. S. Lewis’s essay “Membership” and the latter in “The Inner Ring”; and the two kinds of belonging, true and false, are treated side-by-side in his novel That Hideous Strength.)

Often the perversion of belonging called the Inner Ring disguises its true nature, but in political parties it is often explicit: leaders of those parties can often be cheerfully open about the rewards of loyalty and the costs of disobedience. In such a world we cannot be surprised that our legislators often haven’t read and know little about the bills they vote for, or against: they’re simply doing what they’re told as a condition of continued acceptance, and in hopes of being allowed to move one more rung up, or one more circle Inward.

None of us can do anything to change the incentive structures of political parties; but might it be possible for some people to nudge legislators towards participation in communities that do encourage genuine reflection, and offer alternatives to the Inner Ringery of party membership? Are there people who can model for our elected officials a better way to live? (As opposed to most lobbyists, who want thinking only insofar as it leads to obedience to their interests, as opposed to the party’s.) Maybe all I’m calling for is a renewal of the old Fabian Society policy of influencing the influencers … but that’s not the worst idea in the world. The question is, who — who among those who care about thinking — is well-placed to make that kind of difference?

One thought on “Can politicians think?”

  1. As someone that actively participates in local politics and that is involved with an international relations think tank, I think your diagnosis is solid. I’d raise a few possible answers:

    1) Staff and institutions that serve offices. These can be individual staff, committee staff, institutions like the Congressional Research Service or Congressional Budget Office. I don’t think that historically the lot of the staffer was ever a great one, but my impression is that they have not kept up with the complexity of the problems at best and have been hollowed out at worst. The state of institutions is different, but we did see the end of the Office of Science and Technology when Speaker Gingrich came to power and there seems to be increasing hostility to Congressional Budget Office. Meanwhile, at the local level, no doubt it varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but I have seen politicians that greatly benefit from astute, typically young, staffers that they trust and that do not set the agenda but fill in details of immense consequence. Staff of course are a cure-all, but I think they are necessary and that we have underinvested in them. The challenge I am most aware of is how to convince people skeptical of government that if they wish to achieve their principles, they do invest in staffers even if that means larger government in a venue they most control. Somin raises other challenges in his piece and indeed bureaucratic politics is a well established phenomenon and institutional design is important. I disagree with Somin’s thesis, but I think the points you extract are good ones, so I’ll avoid that distraction.

    2) Think tanks. It’s literally our job to address this. And while we may ask to be graded on a curve, I don’t think there is any way to say that we have not failed, badly. I don’t know if you encountered Dan Drezner’s Idea Industry during your studies, but while I have not read the book yet, my reading of excerpts and hearing him speak on it makes me think it’s the best place to start when examing our failure. This may be something you’re already exploring while in D.C. I do believe that many of the problems we face require addressing systems that are failing us. However, fixing those systems require being able to think through how things could be better, both on our own sides and in collaboration with our opponents. It also requires a definition of “better” that is distinct from “better for my side.” This seems quite on point for your project.

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