Politics: an undervalued opportunity to change the world?

by wubbles2 min read14th Aug 201543 comments


Personal Blog

It might seem odd to call politics undervalued. But if we want to think about how to improve matters for millions of people, it's clear that effective governance and institutions which promote human flourishing are extremely valuable. One example is the Jin dynasty: in between the end of the Han dynasty and the rise of the Jin, the Chinese population dropped by 4/5ths. The wars immortalized in Romance of the Three Kingdoms ere the deadliest before WWII. The existence of any halfway competent central power would have spared millions of people.

Closer to home housing policies in the Bay Area force the poorest in society to spend vast sums to keep a roof over their head. Poor educational opportunities reduce the ultimate earning potential of millions. In some cases, such as pollution controls, the costs of poor policies are measured in lives.

Many people enter politics, and competition is tough. But many opportunities exist that are frequently underexploited, such as school boards, transportation boards, and down-ticket positions with considerable power. Often these positions are dominated by people without an understanding of the issue, and subject to heavy lobbying from those who are directly involved. Occasionally important policies are made in relative obscurity: who here knew about the raisin price controls before it came before the Supreme Court?

There are many ways in which politics might be affected. One is through political theorizing. Robert Bork's The Antitrust Paradox influence a generation of judges and policymakers, leading to a radically different antitrust policy in the US, which benefited consumers. Milton Friedman was the handmaiden of a major shift in economic policy in the US. On the other end Sayyid Qutb has been blamed for the rise of Islamism, which has made life a great deal less pleasant for many people around the world. However, the returns on political theory are extremely uncertain: many works of political philosophy go ignored.

Another is through political organizing. Here the model is the Social Democratic parties of yore, which had profound effects on the social institutions of the countries in which they operated. To the extent the poorest in Europe are better off because of these parties, this work directly improved people's lives. Unfortunately, there is good reason to suspect this is much less doable today.

A third is through competent leadership. Many municipalities are governed poorly for a variety of factors. Publicly minded citizens with slightly better than average interest should be able to copy good policies into poorly governed cities. Many bad policies are the result of rent-seeking, which can easily be resisted, at the cost of having resources for reelection. 

Politics inherently involves leverage. Decisions about policies affect all those in a jurisdiction where the policy applies, and can have knock-on effects, such as financial regulation in a major finance center, or the impact of California emission standards on automobiles. Furthermore, good institutions can last for centuries.

At its most extreme, decisive political action has changed the fates of millions. At its least extreme an effective mayor can ensure that children are educated, potholes repaired, and new housing built. In between politics may offer the best leverage of any opportunity for altruism.


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I am not into politics at all, but I think if you could change the following it would improve the political process. Currently politics seems to be based on arguing your position and gaining status for your team rather than seeking truth and the best policy.

  • Politics is the Mind-Killer – Politics is not a good area for rational debate. It is often about status and power plays where arguments are soldiers rather than tools to get closer to the truth.
  • Adversarial process - a form of truth-seeking or conflict resolution in which identifiable factions hold one-sided positions.
  • Color politics - the words "Blues" and "Greens" are often used to refer to two opposing political factions. Politics commonly involves an adversarial process, where factions usually identify with political positions, and use arguments as soldiers to defend their side. The dichotomies presented by the opposing sides are often false dilemmas, which can be shown by presenting third options.
  • Arguments as soldiers – is a problematic scenario where arguments are treated like war or battle. Arguments get treated as soldiers, weapons to be used to defend your side of the debate, and to attack the other side. They are no longer instruments of the truth.

A democracy is only as strong as the people that are people in it. It seems to me like politicians too often dwell on inconsequential, but politically important issues. They do this because voters care about these issues. The thing is, though, that voters are most often laymen. They are not experts. Therefore, I find it worrisome that politicians seem to discuss and change policies in order to placate voters. Obviously the opinions of voters should still matter, but when it comes to where politicians spend their effort and time. This should be based on what will provide the most benefit. I see two ways to overcome this: somehow get the voters more informed or change the political process somehow, this is related to the first point, so that there is less showboating, sycophantism and placation to the whims of voters.

  • Privileging the question - questions that someone has unjustifiably brought to your attention in the same way that a privileged hypothesis unjustifiably gets brought to your attention. Examples are: should gay marriage be legal? Should Congress pass stricter gun control laws? Should immigration policy be tightened or relaxed? The problem with privileged questions is that you only have so much attention to spare. Attention paid to a question that has been privileged funges against attention you could be paying to better questions. Even worse, it may not feel from the inside like anything is wrong: you can apply all of the epistemic rationality in the world to answering a question like "should Congress pass stricter gun control laws?" and never once ask yourself where that question came from and whether there are better questions you could be answering instead.
  • Error of crowds - is the idea that under some scoring rules, the average error becomes less than the error of the average, thus making the average belief tautologically worse than a belief of a random person. Compare this to the ideas of modesty argument and wisdom of the crowd. A related idea is that a popular belief is likely to be wrong because the less popular ones couldn't maintain support if they were worse than the popular one.
  • Most peoples' beliefs aren’t worth considering - Sturgeon's Law says that as a general rule, 90% of everything is garbage. Even if it is the case that 90% of everything produced by any field is garbage that does not mean one can dismiss the 10% that is quality work. Instead, it is important engage with that 10%, and use that as the standard of quality.

Politicians need to become more aware of complexity and the feedback caused by their policies. Understanding system dynamics would help tremendously in this regard.

  • Policy resistance - Frequently, a nonlinear feedback system will respond to a policy change in the desired manner for a short period of time, but then return to its pre-policy-change state. This occurs when the system's feedback structure works to defeat the policy change designed to improve it.
  • Goodhart’s law - states that once a certain indicator of success is made a target of a social or economic policy, it will lose the information content that would qualify it to play such a role. People and institutions try to achieve their explicitly stated targets in the easiest way possible, often obeying the letter of the law. This is often done in way that the designers of the law did not anticipate or want. For example, the soviet factories which when given targets on the basis of numbers of nails produced many tiny useless nails and when given targets on basis of weight produced a few giant nails.

The complexity of politics that these arguments demonstrate (and the "error of the crowds" itself) makes democracy a seemingly futile solution to government. It would take an enormously skilled tactician to win the vote by selling actually useful policies to a population that prefers simple rhetoric aligning with their color.

They would need:

  • Knowledge and skill at creating policies.
  • Sufficient background in all areas that the policies affect (weighted by importance and enough to make proper use of their advisors).
  • Ability to raise money without making promises that severely limit them once elected.
  • Excellent rhetorical abilities. Skilled enough to convince people of varying degrees of intelligence and differing allegiances to side with you despite your lack of focus on the "sexy" (but meaningless) topics.
  • Excellent negotiating abilities. Fair-representation means you will always have significant opposition once elected. Getting anything done will require tactical negotiating and efficient compromises.
  • ...lots of other things.

But someone who wants power really only needs rhetoric and a PR team that can find them the correct issues to align with. There is something wrong here.

Teenage me, with rather too much confidence, would say that we need a benevolent dictator. Now, with rather less confidence in my world-organizing abilities, I prefer voluntarism in some form. It is... less of a lottery and far more elegant. I just need to figure out if it's too idealistic to work.

makes democracy a seemingly futile solution to government

I am not sure what does "solution to government" mean, but there is a well-known Churchill quote: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others".

In general if someone tells you they have found "the solution" in politics: "Run!"

"solution to government" means "solution to the problem of how organise society".

If "except for all the others" only includes those that have been tried, then I mostly agree. But if it includes all possible forms of social organisation, I strongly disagree. The idea that we've reached the best solution and it barely works is similar to the idea that we will never solve death. Either of those could be true, but there is not nearly evidence to stop us from trying.

[-][anonymous]6y 5

With the death problem, we can characterize the nature of the problem, list out subproblems, list out causal contributors, and attack them one by one.

With "how to organize society", people disagree on the criterion for forming a component of the problem. Conflicting interests are the basic building-block of politics.

If "except for all the others" only includes those that have been tried, then I mostly agree.

The original wording of that quote indeed was "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Hmm, yeah, I thought I remembered that quote having such a clause.

The word "solution" has too much of engineering / hard sciences connotations for my liking.

Organising society is a process and the criteria of what can be considered a successful one are not stable on historic time scale unless you want to take the social darwinism approach.

You're right, "solution" has too much finality to it. How about "approach" as a replacement word that doesn't break the grammar above?

Sure, "approach" will work.

there is a well-known Churchill quote

There is probably a similar quote from Plato about slavery.

The point of the Churchill quote wasn't to proclaim democracy the best evah! The point was to hint at the danger of the nirvana fallacy -- you need to have some method of organising society, so relative metrics are more important than absolute. You pick the best out of what's available.

It would take an enormously skilled tactician to win the vote by selling actually useful policies to a population that prefers simple rhetoric aligning with their color.

That presupposes that you have to win election by explaining the policies that you honestly want to enact. In reality that's not how modern representative democracy work. Neither how it works in practice nor how it works in theory.

True, but you do need a platform that promises, at the very least, a direction that your policies are taking you. If, during your term, you completely neglect everything you talked about while running, you'll take a hit in the next election (unless you've miraculously been so effective during those 4/5 years that everyone is convinced you know better than them).

And if the point is to be the best liar and then do what you want in office, uh, why even have elections?

Obama never talked about how children's IQ would be higher in the future because his administration calculated the dollar value of children's IQ's and opposed it to the costs of reduces mercury pollution.
The policy was done by the EPA with very little public debate.

On the other hand the EPA didn't get done much on global warming where there's massive media attention.

why even have elections?

To allow voters to refuse to reelect politicians with bad track records. If democracy is done right, politicians who mess up don't get reelected.

If it comes to decide whether to vote for a politician's you don't focus on what he promises for the future but what he did in the past. That provides for democratic accountability.

To choose representatives and not to choose policy.

If I look at Bernie Sanders I know that he engaged in good policy for decades. He voted against the Iraq war and the patriotic act. That tells me much more about him than any promise he makes before the election.

If, during your term, you completely neglect everything you talked about while running, you'll take a hit in the next election

Bush campaigned on "no statebuilding" and then went to do very expensive statebuilding in Iraq or Afghanistan without the Republican base complaining. The Republican didn't like Clinton's intervention against Kosovo, so it made sense for Bush to run with "no statebuilding".

Obama promised to clean up Wall Street but did nothing substantial. He engaged in busywork and passed laws but they are more symbolic than real reform.

Unfortunately, there is good reason to suspect this is much less doable today.

If you look in states that have a decent electoral system like Germany it's quite possible to start new parties that win seats. The only problem is that most of the people who join a new party aren't exactly fit for political action and thus the pirate party destroyed itself through infighting and incompetence.

80,000 Hours has investigated the expected effects of changing the world through party politics.


This is a very high-potential, though very competitive and high-risk path that can enable you to make a big difference through improving the operation of government and promoting important ideas. If you’re highly able, could tolerate being in the public eye and think you could develop a strong interest in politics, then we recommend learning more about this career to test your suitability.

However, they seem not to have examined the impact of starting a new political movement or political philosophy in the same way. Even higher variance, potentially even bigger rewards. Institutional change in particular can be extremely difficult to do without a clear mandate, which alliances in existing parties might not give.

starting a new political movement or political philosophy

What would be new about it?

in between the end of the Han dynasty and the rise of the Jin, the Chinese population dropped by 4/5ths. The wars immortalized in Romance of the Three Kingdoms ere the deadliest before WWII.

By that logic, the deadliest war in history is the Independence of India, which reduced the population of the British Empire by 4/5. I am not pointing out a slippery slope. I am not saying that you misunderstand your sources. I am saying that your sources are complete garbage.

(There is a separate issue that it is not reasonable to compare the "deadliness" of wars to changes in the carrying capacity. For one thing, a death in war takes place at a point in time, while the carrying capacity is extended through time.)

For the benefit of those of us who share wubbles's ignorance, could you explain more explicitly?

Your first remark suggests that the "reduction" in Chinese population was just a result of lots of people ceasing to be counted as Chinese (since that is what happened to the population of the British Empire when India became independent). But the rest of the paragraph suggests that instead you think wubbles's sources are talking about a reduction in population on account of lots of people dying, but that they're terribly wrong.

What is the actual truth about what happened to the Chinese people (would it be better to say "the people we would now consider Chinese" or something?) during this period, and what is garbage-y about wubbles's sources?

My only source so far for this stuff is Wikipedia (which is always right except when it's wrong), which I consulted after reading wubbles's article and your comments. It says that this period "has been considered the second deadliest period of warfare behind World War II", cites Han-era and Jin-era censuses, and remarks that they might not have been very accurate but the Jin (allegedly) made a serious effort to count everyone. Is this badly incorrect ("complete garbage"), and if so how?

If what actually happened (or is wrongly claimed to have happened by whatever sources wubbles is using) is an actual loss of people, but it resulted from a major loss of carrying capacity, it seems to me like that's at least as much an evidence of governmental incompetence as a corresponding loss by war would have been. Do you disagree?

By "the rest of the paragraph" do you mean the parenthetical paragraph? I regret including it. Carrying capacity is important, but my first point is more important. I should have stopped with the three sentences of disclaimers saying I really mean what I say. It really is as simple as people subtracting incomparable censuses. It really is as idiotic as saying that 400 million people died at the stroke of midnight, because of the stroke of a pen.

No, by "the rest of the paragraph" I mean "I am not ... your sources are complete garbage". (I did comment on the carrying-capacity thing, but that was separate.)

An ignorant perusal (e.g., mine) of the Wikipedia article gives the impression (1) that someone who has a clue about this stuff has claimed that those wars were incredibly deadly (suggesting either that subtracting the censuses isn't as hopeless as it sounds, or else there's other reason to think so besides the censuses) and (2) that the people who did the later census -- the one with the smaller numbers -- did try quite hard to make sure they didn't miss anyone (so in so far as they succeeded, the apparent loss of numbers estimated from the censuses would have to be an underestimate).

On 1, WP cites four sources. Two look very unscholarly, to say the least, but the other two seem superficially credible enough. Are they just plain wrong? On 2, a single source is cited that again looks kinda-credible, but I have no way of checking whether the source says "... so subtracting these censuses can't give much too large a figure for the loss of life" or something more like "... but although the Jin did their best, bless their little cotton socks, it seems likely that they unerestimated by a factor of 4". I was hoping that you might answer my questions looking for more specificity, and help me distinguish between the hypotheses (1) that although you can't expect to get useful results from subtracting those census results there's other good reason to think there was a huge loss of life during the Three Kingdoms period, (2) that actually there are ways to get useful information from comparing the census results, and (3) that actually the only reason to think there was huge loss of life is the comparison of census results, which is just as hopeless as it sounds like it might be.

(#3 is very plausible prima facie, but that Wikipedia article seems like some evidence for #1-or-#2. I am well aware that Wikipedia articles can be wrong, hence my request for more specifics that might clear the matter up. There's some interesting but inconclusive discussion on the article's talk page.)

Every discussion of death toll I have ever seen is a simple subtraction of the two censuses.

The two censuses were more than a century apart, in 157 and 280, so they cannot tell you anything about killing. Going in the opposite direction, if the killing is spread out over time, it could easily kill twice population with no net effect.

I think 10% killed counts as "incredibly deadly."

Yes, there is a line in wikipedia claiming that the Jin census was high quality, but other people claim that it was low quality. In fact, what that line really tells you is the existence of people claiming that it was low quality.

they cannot tell you anything about killing

This is where we get back to something I said a few comments upthread: if there were losses anything like as big as the censuses suggest, they seem like good evidence of major government incompetence even if they had nothing to do with war.

but other people claim that it was low quality

No doubt. There would be some people claiming high quality and some people claiming low quality regardless of the actual facts, I take it.

The later census reports about 1/4 as many people as the earlier. For China not to have lost at least, say, 1/3 its population, it seems like (1) the later census must have been really bad, or else (2) it must have been counting a markedly smaller notional population (e.g., some territory having been lost). I haven't seen anything suggesting that #2 was the case (and have seen it explicitly claimed that it wasn't); is that wrong?

If not #2 then #1, but that again seems improbable prima facie. Do you have good reason to think it's wrong?

I'm just trying to understand the basis for your very uncompromising claim: "your sources are complete garbage". Because it seems strange to me that nothing you've said so far either gives good support for that claim or indicates that you have good support for it. I'm not claiming you haven't, for the avoidance of doubt. It's just that, well, you seem to be conspicuously avoiding offering any support beyond the observation that comparing censuses could give misleading results.

Sure, but rationalists make shitty politicians. Its a bicycle built for two, not for you. Nerds should aim to be the politician's consultants and advisers, not the politician themselves.

90% of the people on LW likely are not fit for a political career but that doesn't mean that we don't have people with good social skills who might make good politicians.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Moreover, we are a young crowd. It would be nice to see more young people in politics like Wyatt Roy, the youngest Australian MP who entered parliament as a teenager! He seems promising.

Why is raisin policy important?

The most usual complaint I see about the raisin reserve (and yes, it does come up every few years...), is that it is unfair to farmers. The government seizes "excess" raisins from the farmers, and pays them back "if there's enough money".

Wikipedia has a good article on the issue.

Edit: Well, I should have read the article in its entirety. Apparently they just repealed the reserve earlier this year.

It's a waste of government money to keep a raisin reserve.

How much waste? This seems like a very insignificant thing to focus on. How much of a waste would it need to be to qualify as "important"?

It's a tiny slice of the huge agrar budget. Criticising individual parts of it is a way to fight it.

Criticize the large slices, if they're unneeded. Don't criticize the small ones as a way of getting people to not like the large ones (if this is an uncharitable interpretation, tell me).

Plus, it increases the price of food. The net effect is a transfer of wealth from poor people to agribusiness that grow and process raisins..

The raisin policy by itself isn't particularly important. However as an example -- which got to the Supreme Court -- of unchecked Federal government power, it's quite important.

Many bad policies are the result of rent-seeking, which can easily be resisted, at the cost of having resources for reelection.

How do you know?

Start here:

http://www.propertarianism.com/reading-list/ or http://moldbuggery.blogspot.com/ start with open letter to progressives or gentle introduction

no, we're not all necessarily racists, only some.

http://www.propertarianism.com/ just browse around.

[-][anonymous]6y -1

If someone told you that there was a trillion dollars a year just sloshing around and you could help apply some pressure to allocate it more sensibly, you would do it. Therefore, I have a high prior on politics being a reasonable way to change the world, since politics controls huge sums of money and labor, on the order of trillions of dollars per year.

Many people claim that politics is very low-value, but frankly, I'm suspicious of those people, since they are usually pushing a policy agenda that amounts to, "Reduce the amount of assets politics can affect or mobilize by handing those assets over to me and my campaign contributors." This was tried in the Eastern Bloc, to devastating results.

So I tend to think that claiming, "politics is weak, stupid, and low-value, and only for weak, stupid people who can't do something worthwhile with themselves in the private sector" is actually a very political signalling strategy used to directly acquire wealth and power as a one-time purchase, without all the nasty business about repeatedly winning elections to keep the wealth and power.

There are few places, and certainly not the US, where too little of society's resources are consumed by politics.

But therefore, in the US at least, action to remove parts of society from politics can be very effective altruism. E.g., the citizen watchdog group NHLA in New Hampshire that targets corporate welfare and other parasitic programs (e.g. the Drug War). They spend very little money (about 40K per year), but have an outsize effect on policy.


action to remove parts of society from politics

I don't understand what that means.

[-][anonymous]6y -4

It means "I'm the kind of person who pretends that society pre-exists its social and political arrangements".