"politics isn't about policy," which I believe was coined by Robin
Hanson, packs a lot of information into a small amount of space. It has taken
me a long time to appreciate the dense wisdom contained in that seemingly
straightforward aphorism, but I think I've finally managed to absorb it all.
Take, for example,
the notion that the rich should pay more in taxes. The question isn't really a
matter of policy. Why not? Because no one who thinks taxes should be raised on
the rich has any specific notion of what that tax rate actually ought to be. Scott
Sumner recently posted on this, and it's clear from his post that some of
the people who want the rich to pay more prefer a maximum tax rate that is
actually lower than the one that presently exists! In other words, "the
rich should pay more in taxes" is the whole of most people's beliefs about
taxes. They do not have any specific policy in mind. Whatever you tell them
about how much the rich already pay, they will always be in favor of
"more." It's not a matter of policy, it's a matter of sentiment. It's
a description of how people feel toward the rich, not a description of what
they think the IRS should do.
another example. A lot of people favor putting up a border wall. This
perspective is a little silly because people aren't immigrating -- legally or
illegally -- for lack of physical barriers. If the border wall is completed,
then would-be immigrants will simply find a way around the wall, or over it, or
under it. The wall itself is meaningless. It's not really about the wall, it's
about describing a person's sentiment. That sentiment is that they don't want
Spanish-speaking immigrants, Arab-speaking immigrants, or African immigrants
coming into the United States.
There are many
reasons why people don't want this, and all of them are bad reasons. Why do I
say they're bad reasons? Because they are non-specific. When people lament that
immigrants take welfare money, they're not suggesting that the US adopt new
policies on welfare. When people lament that immigrants cause crime, they're
not suggesting that the US adopt new policies on crime. When people lament that
immigrants steal jobs, they're not suggesting that the US implement new
economic policies. The immigration debate is not about any policy at all. It's merely a description of a sentiment.
Granted, people like
myself, who believe that the rich should be taxed less,
and that the US not build a crazy,
anti-people wall are arguing similarly. I have no idea what the right tax rate
"should" be. I have no opinion on how many people "should"
be allowed into the United States. It's exactly the same for me, I'm not
arguing for a specific policy, I'm just arguing for "lower taxes," no
matter how low they are, and "more immigrants," no matter how many we
already have. It’s not about policy for me, either.
The closest I can
get to formulating an opinion about policy is this: I think taxes are too high
in general, and ought to be slowly lowered, percentage point by percentage
point, until we maximize the utility gains from doing so. Similarly with
immigration: I think we ought to reduce barriers to immigration point by point
until we maximize all utility gains from immigration.
But it's still not a
policy debate, it's just a worldview debate. Funnily enough, it's harder to
convince people to change their world view than it is to convince them to favor
a particular policy. So perhaps political debates would end better if we discussed
policy rather than politics.