On Politics' Not Being About Policy

The refrain "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.

Immigration is 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.

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