The Other Realpolitik [Edited]

Left-leaning blogger Matthew Yglesias gets popular with children by giving away candy gets lots of agreement from libertarians on this:
I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

Making it all the odder, the level of self-interest at stake isn’t all that high. Selling the public good down the river to bolster your re-election chances isn’t like stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children. The welfare rolls are hardly stocked with the names of former members of congress. Indeed, it’s not even clear that voting “the wrong way” poses particularly serious threats to one’s re-election. But even if it did, one might assume that people who bother to dedicating their lives to securing vast political power did so because they actually wanted to accomplish something
Robin Hanson comments: "Senators are roughly our top hundred politicians [...] and such critiques should most apply to our most elite politicians, who have been most selected for putting winning above other considerations." In other words, the people less willing to make the tradeoffs Yglesias would like to see more often are unlikely to be the senators. Maybe they've gone back to farming or something.

But let me take issue with the more basic idea. Yes, a rational altruist would see political power as a means of accomplishing something, but also as a prerequisite for doing so. Let's assume there are only two candidates for the senator's seat in the next elections and two legislative periods of interest: The current one and the one after the next elections. The incumbent we're looking at has just been elected and would like to be elected once more, after which he'll retire. He doesn't care about what happens after that.

Now let's pull some numbers out of thin air: The incumbent rates the value to others of the policy choices he would ideally make (strategy 1) at 90 and those he expects his opponent to make at 20 (higher numbers mean better choices). If he follows this strategy, he expects to win the next elections with p = .3 and his opponent to win with p=.7. The expected value of strategy 1 for the current and next periods hence is:

90 + .3*90 + .7*20 = 131

When instead he follows a strategy 2, which maximizes his chances of winning (p = .8) the next elections, but means policy choices which the incumbent values only at 60, we get:

60 + .8*90 + .2*20 = 136

In other words, strategy 2 yields a higher expected value than strategy 1. Two points:

1. Of course you could complicate this model, for example when the candidate cares about what happens after his retirement and thinks his own policy choices will influence the chances of his party's candidate winning.

2. None of this is to argue that all politicians are rational altruists, which would be ludicrous. I'm only trying to demonstrate that Yglesias' premise is crap.

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