Meaningless Political Speech and Juneteenth
A declaration of President Joe Biden about Juneteenth helps us reflect on political speech. Biden declared (as quoted by James Freeman, “A Day for Liberty,” Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2023):
So Juneteenth, as a federal holiday, is meant to breathe new life into the very essence of America—(applause)—to make sure all Americans feel the power of this day and the progress we can make as a country; to choose love over hate, unity over disunion, and progress over retreat.
What is “the very essence of America” and especially how can “we” do something “as a country”? Choices are ultimately made by individuals and according to their preferences, even if within government officialdom or through other political processes. Invoking a big imaginary social being does not help make fuzzy choices. What does it mean “to choose love over hate, unity over disunion, and progress over retreat”?
Hate is sometimes more natural, more understandable, and more morally justifiable than love. We might, for example, approve of, and argue for, hating—not loving—Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, even if the degree of hate must vary among these targets. In the case of the last two, Trump and Biden, the classical-liberal and Enlightenment value of tolerance provides a better orientation than raging emotions such as love and hate, although tolerance has limits somewhere. Slavery was despicable and certainly deserved hatred.
Disunion is often preferable to unity: it depends on which set of individuals we are referring to. Disunion within a slave-owning or other criminal group is good. For somebody to be disunited from hate groups is desirable. Disunion of thought is better than groupthink.
That progress is better than retreat means nothing until you know what you are progressing toward and what you are retreating from. For example, progress in eugenics, which the early 20th-century progressives advocated, is not preferable to retreat from this barbarian policy (which lasted in the law books of certain states even into the second half of the century). Between 1907 and 1980, 65,000 women were forcibly sterilized in America. (See Paul Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell [John Hopkins University Press, 2008]; and Thomas Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era [Princeton University Press, 2016].) Morally and economically, the progress was in the retreat.
At best, Mr. Biden’s cheesy declarations are meaningless. There are costs in saying something that has no clearly ascertainable meaning, if only the risk for the speaker of being misunderstood to his detriment. Another opportunity cost is that the speaker could instead spend his mental energy on thinking or meditating or even dreaming poetry. A plumber, a mechanic, a businessman, an economist, or a philosopher (except perhaps in continental Europe) will typically try to avoid meaningless statements because they don’t help earn a living.
For the politician, however, the costs of uttering meaningless statements are typically low and the benefits high; the net benefit for him is very often positive. (I review other cases in my post “The Economics of Political Balderdash,” April 3, 2017.) Few voters will spend time and other resources identifying and remembering the politician’s meaningless statements—although the reduction in the cost of stocking and retrieving information has certainly increased the politician’s risk, especially over the past few decades. Add that a good politician will be able, in retrospect, to propose the most favorable interpretations for his previous meaningless utterances. Politicians’ actions and speech can be quite easily decoupled from their obscure and inextricable consequences, especially as time passes.
Part of political speech is simply virtue signaling, that is, a set of badges of membership in a tribe. This function does not require any testing for rationality or truth.
The politicians’ incentives to say nothing meaningful at best, and at worst to lie, can be largely explained by the citizen’s rational ignorance and political apathy that follow from his infinitesimal (individual) influence on public choices. Joseph Schumpeter’s reflection in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1950) applies probably more widely in the political realm than he even thought:
Thus the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his own interests. He becomes a primitive again.
No wonder the necessary radical reform of the place of politics in our lives is so difficult.