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How Evil Are Politicians? Essays on Demogoguery
Like Labor Econ Versus the World, my new book thematically cherry picks what I consider my best EconLog posts from 2005-2022. The title essay argues that most politicians are deeply evil - and not merely because I disagree with their policy views. The key issue, rather, is epistemic negligence. As Spiderman teaches us, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yet the vast majority of politicians wields vast power casually, with nary a thought to the underlying thorny moral questions:
Yes, with great power comes great responsibility. If you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times, ever mindful of the possibility that you’re trampling the rights of the morally innocent.
How Evil Are Politicians? has four parts. Part I, “Evil Rules the World,” reflects on the iniquity of the world’s rulers. Dictators, democrats, left, right: Every major category of politician is a rogues’ gallery. While economics tells us that we often have to choose the lesser evil, philosophy warns us that the lesser evil is still evil - and history reminds us that the greater evil frequently prevails. “Evil Rules the World” analyzes the psychological mechanics of demagoguery: It’s Social Desirability Bias that lets demagogues gain power, hold power, impoverish their countries, and warp the human soul.
Part II, “A Litany of Evil,” focuses on specific demagogues and specific acts of demagoguery. I have a long essay on Hitler’s arguments for conquest. Because the man did have arguments. I connect Lenin to the freaky Russian tradition of marrying utilitarianism to casual mass murder. I explain the much-denied political implications of behavioral genetics, and lament politicians’ stubborn refusal to use Human Challenge Trials to not only speed Covid vaccines, but to swiftly figure out what the hell was going on.
The third part is most current, and hence most controversial. It’s “Pragmatic Pacifism,” where I make the emotionally unappealing case for appeasing, giving in, giving up, and choosing to lose. If you read it, you’ll see that I’m well-aware of all the standard objections. With rare exceptions, however, my critics have just repeated cliches instead of moving the conversation forward. The heart of my argument is straightforward:
1. The short-run costs of war are clearly awful.
2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.
3. For a war to be morally justified, its expected long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.
All three premises are hard to doubt, yet in the heat of conflict, almost no one wants to go back to first principles. I do. Yes, even now. As Anthony Hopkins snarls in Legends of the Fall, “Don't talk at me, boy, as if I've never seen a war!”
How Evil Are Politicians? ends more cheerfully on “How Good Is Freedom?,” where I dissect - and try to intellectually improve - familiar libertarian arguments. I cover libertarian rhetoric, populism, free speech, and immigration - and end with a polemic against free stuff.
Truth in advertising: You’re free to just scroll through my thousands of old EconLog post to read all of the essays in this book. (Note, however, that the title essay of the forthcoming Don’t Be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice, the next volume in the series, will be brand new).
But if you like Bet On It, I think you’ll find that this purchase is money well-spent. It’s a curated experience. I’ve hand-picked my very best pieces - including two essays on Game of Thrones as an implicitly pacifist work. The editor, Ashruta Acharya, has beautifully typeset the book. And @sengsavane has once again drawn a gorgeous cover. Orwell-inspired!
P.S. I’m available to do podcasts, interviews, and any other form of publicity about How Evil Are Politicians? Just email me to set something up.
P.P.S. How Evil Are Politicians? works well as a supplemental text for classes in public choice, political economy, political science, political philosophy, political theory, democratic theory, global politics, international relations, and military science. If you assign the book, I am happy to do Q&A over zoom with your class.