the heart of political insanity

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on April 14, 2011

Politics is known to drive people insane. A special case is where people lose their rationality when engaging in political debate.

Let’s for the moment take their word for why they care about politics: they care about policy outcomes. Immigration restriction will save jobs. Jobs need to be saved. Hence immigration restrictions. That’s why they debate so ferociously for their preferred policies. It’s because these policies are instrumental to their preferred outcomes, which matter a lot.

But this is untenable. They aren’t certain those policies will achieve their preferred outcomes. If instead other policies happen to be better at achieving their preferred outcomes, they should not reject those in favor of their originally preferred policies, which were only instrumentally preferred anyway. When other instrumental policies come along which better serve their terminal preferences concerning outcomes, they should switch. But they don’t.

So we guess that they might be signaling their preferred outcome via their preferred policies. Advocating immigration restriction signals your compassion for those who lost their job in the recession. But this is insane. You see, we ostensibly debate policies because we want to figure out their true outcomes, so that we might choose those which best achieve the outcomes we prefer. But if we instead give ourselves a signaling motive for arguing policies, overall incentives will be distorted away from us figuring out their actual outcomes

In fact, it’s worse than this. Any policy will be proposed with an outcome in mind. That outcome will be automatically associated with the policy. Thus associated, any signaling-for-outcome will be signaling-for-this-outcome. So any further debate, if purely under the influence of this signaling motive, will not change this original association.

Of course, this isn’t such an insane situation provided we still care enough about policy outcomes, because then there is still enough incentive left for the truth to be eventually arrived at. But we don’t. We care more about signaling ideology. Policies are instrumental to outcomes via signaling, which are in turn instrumental to ideology via signaling. So is this insane, that we not care much about outcomes at all? No, because now that ideology is what matters, outcomes aren’t valued per se. The substituting incentives for truth with incentive for signaling (via which version of the truth you favor no less!) is no longer self-sabotage. In fact signaling policies and outcomes both contribute to signaling ideology. They all work in perfect harmony. (I’m pretty sure advocating certain outcomes in order to signal which policy you support also happens…)

Most political decisions don’t immediately affect you anyway, so you have little incentive to get it right. But outcomes do matter to some extent, since a particular ideology will have quite arbitrarily allied itself with some preferred outcomes, and hence can be said to care for them intrinsically. But outcomes are highly uncertain, especially since this is the political-economic system we are talking about. So the link between policy and outcome is further diluted, in addition to the bleaching already provided by signaling considerations (of preferred outcomes no less! (i’m sorry but this is just so insane it bears repeating)). The link thus compromised, outcomes are further dissociated from its face value, giving signaling even greater reign: ideologies now have freedom to optimize for signaling via allied policies with little regard to their actual outcomes.

The situation is like this. We have outcomes which ideologies adopt, but which don’t correspond to any individual’s preferences. We have policies which ideologies adopt, which don’t even correspond to any imagined-preferred outcome. Needless to say, the link from policy to actual outcomes is tenuous at best.

So is politics insane? Only if you buy its rhetoric: that outcomes matter.


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  1. computing intentions « sarkology said, on April 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    […] the obvious signals of intention do not get translated into intended outcomes. Most obviously in politics. To take a non-controversial example (where the low status people act out the bad example), some […]

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