How Evil Are Politicians?
By Bryan Caplan
I think politicians are, by and large, evil people. When I shared my verdict with a journalist friend, he strongly objected. He rightly pointed out that he’s had ample personal interaction with politicians. In his experience, politicians of both parties generally want to do the right thing. Whatever their intellectual errors, their virtue is intact. My mental image of villainous politicians is at odds with the facts.
I’m happy to grant that my journalist friend’s first-hand experience with politicians far exceeds my own. But I’m confident that if I saw what he saw, my doleful verdict would stay the same. Why? Because my standards of moral conduct are much higher than his, in two main ways.
First, virtuous people can’t just conform to the expectations of their society. Everyone has at least a modest moral obligation to perform “due diligence” – to investigate whether their society’s expectations are immoral. And whenever their society fails to measure up, virtuous people spurn social expectations and do the morally right thing.
Second, anyone in a position of political power has a greatly elevated moral obligation to perform this due diligence. Yes, with great power comes great responsibility. If you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times, ever mindful of the possibility that you’re trampling the rights of the morally innocent.
Note: Neither of these principles claims that politicians have to share my libertarian philosophy in order to be decent human beings. They’re procedural. They require every human being to seek out and seriously consider the main moral critiques of the status quo. And they enjoin politicians to make this intellectual hygiene their top priority. Until they calmly recuse themselves from their society and energetically weigh a wide range of moral arguments, they have no business lifting a political finger.
At this point, the iniquity of practicing politicians should be clear. How much time and mental energy does the average politician pour into moral due diligence? A few hours of year seems like a high estimate. They don’t just fall a tad short of their moral obligations. They’re too busy passing laws and giving orders to face the possibility that they’re wielding power illegitimately.
Such negligence is scarcely surprising. After all, what’s in it for the politicians? Political systems reward them for seeming good by conventional standards. If we’re lucky, this spurs leaders to do what most people consider good. More likely, it spurs leaders to spin control – packaging even their worst actions in conventional moral garb. If there’s a political system that affirmatively rewards politicians for conscientiously questioning mainstream moral standards, I’ve never heard of it. Politicians have no excuses for their shameful behavior, but like almost all wrong-doers, they have reasons.
Admittedly, if it turned out that our society’s conventional moral standards were basically right, our politicians’ vice would be harmless. That’s a much bigger question. But whatever the whole truth about morality might be, politicians – including the Americans politicians my journalist friend defends – are almost invariably guilty of pervasive gross moral negligence. Politicians, repent!