"Politics The Mind-Killer" And Other Stories

Twelve years ago, Eliezer Yudkowski introduced a concept that has taken root across the international community of smart people. In a blog post entitled, "Politics is the Mind-Killer," he writes:
People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation . . . When, today, you get into an argument about whether “we” ought to raise the minimum wage, you’re executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed. Being on the right side of the argument could let you kill your hated rival!
Right off the bat, he loses me. The ultimate thrust of his idea, is a good one. He concludes by saying simply, "It’s just better for the spiritual growth of the community to discuss the issue without invoking color politics." In order to arrive at this point, however, Yudkowski makes a terrible error that no one has ever bothered to go back and correct. Yudkowski thinks politics is an evolutionary response. I don't.

The fact that human beings are social is almost certainly an evolutionary fact. All of the great apes and most of the primates are social animals. It would be strikingly odd to discover that one of the most common primates was completely atomistic, in contrast to every other similar species. I think it's also self-evidently true that politics is a form of social interaction. From this, we'd be tempted to follow a chain of logic that goes something like this:

  1. Social interaction is an evolved behavior.
  2. Politics is a form of social interaction.
  3. Therefore, politics is an evolved behavior.
This kind of analysis is so superficial that I'm surprised it could convince anyone. Consider an analogous argument:

  1. Social interaction is an evolved behavior.
  2. Laser tag is a form of social interaction.
  3. Therefore, laser tag is an evolved behavior.
What's the problem here? Human beings evolved to link up with each other and behave cooperatively. Playing a game of laser tag certainly involves linking up with other human beings and cooperating, and thus involves a cognitive response that can be traced back through the millennia, but the specific context of a game of laser tag is completely disconnected from any evolutionary pattern. Laser tag is not a biological fact, but a technological one.

Humans put their evolutionary abilities to use to invent laser tag, just as chimpanzees put their own abilities to use to build nests in the trees. No one would argue that nests are a part of chimp evolution. Chimps evolved to sleep and to prefer comfort to discomfort; thus, over time, they discovered a technology that satisfied their needs. Humans evolved to reason, and to think up games to practice strategy; thus, over time, they developed a laser tag technology that satisfied their needs.

My argument: Politics is merely a kind of social technology*.

When we invoke politics, we're not engaging in something inevitable from out evolved biology, we're choosing a particular kind of social technology designed to facilitate cooperation. Ludwig von Mises would ask, Is the chosen means the best way to achieve the desired end? Well, doesn't that depend on what end one is working toward?

There is an unstated assumption among good people discussing an issue in good faith that we're all looking for the truth, and that if we can debate it and publicly investigate the evidence, eventually we'll all come the same understanding of an issue and agree on what is to be done. We commonly deride others when they "play politics," because on some level we know that politics is antithetical to the search for truth and evidence-based consensus. On some level, we all know that politics is more akin to short-circuiting rational analysis in favor of a cruder emotional response. In light of that, one possible alternate definition for politics is: Appealing to emotions to gain consensus when evidence and logic is insufficient or costly to present.

Consider any political issue about which you feel strongly. Any at all. Consider the things you most typically say about this issue. Does most of what you say consist of formal presentations of the best available empirical evidence, and a clear outline of the underlying logic in defense of a particular policy response? Or, do you mostly say emotional stuff about how the good guys agree with you, the bad guys disagree with you, and that anyone with a modicum of humanity should obviously prefer your policy set? Probably the latter, right? We tend to save our formal, empirical reasoning for our professional lives, mostly because it's hard work (i.e. "costly to present").

We humans are obviously not computers or robots. We evolved both logical and emotional cognitive abilities to handle different kinds of scenarios. Emotional appeals work particularly well in resolving the conflicts of love, for example, while logical appeals work well to get jobs done, put food on the table, solve immediate technological problems, and so on. Love is the glue of social cohesion, and so it's not particularly surprising to see people use emotional responses to attempt to solve problems of social cohesion.

For better or worse, the human species has flourished to the point that some of the things that used to be entirely about social cohesion, such as the distribution of resources within a community, have now become mostly technological problems. When we were hunter-gatherers that acquired resources communally, emotional appeals were probably appropriate means of requesting additional resources in times of need. In the modern world, the economy is so complex that acquiring additional resources can no longer be seen as a matter to be solved through emotional appeals. We now have technologies for the collection and distribution of financing, and many worthy causes that compete against one another for limited resources. The worthiest cause is no longer the one with an important moral claim or a particularly emotional backstory. The worthiest cause is the one that can make the best empirical case that it will put the resources to good use.

You can argue that this technology is cold and unfeeling, but you cannot argue that it isn't fair or that it doesn't distribute resources efficiently. Playing politics thus becomes a way to distract from the best use of our resources and to express emotional vigor over a particularly hard empirical problem to overcome.

Politics isn't a "mind-killer," exactly, but rather a technology best used to resolve individual emotional conflicts, rather than large-scale problems within the state.


* Here I am using "technology" in the same sense that Mises would have used it.

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