Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When Cynics are Right: A Reluctant Nod to my Pessimistic Peers

I am, by nature, not a cynical person. I am an optimist. I like to be happy, and happiness is caused by strong, loving interpersonal relations. These require trust in other people, and for the most part, I have it. I have developed the ability to distrust people when necessary and I am not naive. But when in doubt, I tend to give people the benefit of that doubt.

Cynics are people who are the opposite, who don't trust people, who are pessimists, who look for the bad in people and automatically assume the worst. They're generally not very fun people to be around, and I try not to be around them as much as possible. This is true for politics as well. While I recognize that people's vices are never going away, as a Libertarian I try to make people's selfish motives work for the common good. But politicians also have selfish motives, and these motives also cause problems in politics which cannot be denied. So when my Political Science professor, Benjamin Ginsberg, opened class by announcing to us that he was not a Republican or a Democrat but a cynic, I couldn't help but agree he had some valid points.

According to Professor Ginsberg, all but a very few politicians are not motivated by ideology or by the common good at all. They are motivated almost exclusively by three things, in his mind: money, power, and status. Even if they enter politics with good intentions, they can often get sidetracked by the necessity of attaining enough money, power, and status to have much sway, so that by the time they get into a position where they can actually enact change they care only about attaining more money, power and status. This is problematic because the money motivator creates policies favorable to whoever is funding their campaigns, the power motivator creates a government that's too large and too restrictive of people's liberties, and the status motivator causes politicians who try to avoid risk and polish their image instead of tackling difficult but pressing political issues. He also argued that this is unchangeable, and that politicians, just like people in the private sector, have always and will always be motivated by these same things. 

This sounds mighty gloomy and pessimistic even when it's just the prognostications of a cantankerous old professor, but the scariest part is that he's mostly right. He may even be correct that these personal motivations are eternal and that they cannot change, that politicians, as humans, will only ever really be motivated by selfish incentives. But where I disagree with the Professor is in the assumption that pursuing ones individual interests is necessarily contradictory to the "common" interest", whether in politics or economics or any other field. In the political example, one element of status is popularity, and this can be attained in other ways than merely grand political posturing. Many Americans are catching on to all of this, railing against "career politicians" and clamoring for politicians who are dedicated to actual principle. And just as career politicians made their livings by giving the people what they wanted, a new brand of principle-oriented politician can do the same by giving this new audience what they want: ideological consistency. They needn't even do it because they are willing to put those principles before their pride, but because they will pride themselves on their principles, and so will others. The acclaim that people receive when they stick to principles can be a selfish motivation that actually works for the common good. Just as people feel good when they give to charity and their church commends them for it, politicians can feel good when they stand by the principles on which they were elected, and are commended by the voters for this.

Perhaps it's due to my lack of cynicism, but I still believe the moods, education, beliefs and desires of the US electorate is ultimately what creates the sort of politicians we need. That electorate has proved malleable to all sorts of national challenges in the past, recognizing problems and electing leaders capable of defeating those problems. The problems of conflicting incentive within the government itself will be no exception. One might call it cynicism for the present, but optimism for the future. Once enough people realize that what's truly bogging this country down is not so much that we're following one party or not following the other, but that we're following both parties and both are in bed with special interests, the electorate will demand politicians of ideological consistency and moral substance. Like Ron Paul, for instance...

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