The addictions of fame and power

Matt Yglesias writes:

At the same time, I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree [of] 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

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 and get in the history books, perhaps, as one of the big heroes of their era.

I don't intend any particular point about cap and trade, but viewed more generally it's stunning how true this is.  (In fairness, note that the title of this post is my framing, not necessarily Matt's.)  Many people — especially those who become politicians — really do want fame and power and it is amazing what they will talk themselves into to get there and to stay there.  They don't even want fame in the sense of being recognized, in the longer run, for having done the right thing.  They want more personal influence and power now.


This story is told in The Wire. Mayor Carcetti's team regularly say things that amount to "If we don't do this bad thing to Baltimore, we are going to be elected again to do good things to Baltimore!" The good things never arrive, of course.


Completely agree with Matt and Tyler, but I think Matt would do himself a service by finding a contra-Democrat example to keep the argument from being a partisan one.

The best "contra-Democrat" example is all those Democratic Senators who voted for the Iraq war resolution because they wanted to run for president.

I wonder if Matt can have the same objectivity when viewing 'progressives' and education policy. It is something to watch those who 'care about the children' consistently sell out the kids in order to secure their political position.

Stanford Prison study? Knowing what we what we know about power, its amazing that we give these people any at all let alone attempt to expand it.

Isn't that exactly what democracy and federalism are all about - politicians voting the way their constituencies want?

i think it's bizarre to frame pols as a "different" species than, say, CEOs or generals. i think within humanity there are people with an overwhelming need to(and, also worth noting, ability to enact) control. Some peoples skills, personal history and life choices etc suggest the expedient route is through congress where as others it's the board room or battle field. i think this analysis works equally cogently across job title

How could it be otherwise? This is an evolutionary thing; people who don't act the way M.Y. deplores don't rise to the top of political systems. Wishing it were different is like wishing that businesses, in a free market economy, would give away their goods or services to the deserving. Those that did that wouldn't survive; ditto politicians who did comparable things.

Dear Matt Yglesias, welcome to public choice theory.

Getting elected today in the US requires soliciting millions in bribes (aka "campaign contributions"). Elected officials have been preselected to be crooks.

But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes.
Of course not. Shoes are nowhere near valuable enough to a Senator.

Forget public choice, he apparently hasn't even seen The Godfather!
Kay: "Michael, do you know how naive you sound? Senators and Presidents don't have people killed."
Michael: "Now, who's being naive, Kay?"


That was my thought.

We can only point fingers for so long. Pols or anyone else in power is only able to do as thy do because we allow, nay - condone, it! If it truly was not the will of the people they would not get away with it. Time to stop complaining and to actually do something about it. Th road to hell is really paved with good intentions - only actions count!

I'm surprised Tyler posted this. Obviously the model "we are disinterested and noble observers of the public scene, while all people in power are greedy bastards" is not going to be that useful. Moreover, there are excellent nonselfish reasons to reject radical changes to our economic system with the aim of reversing hypothetical future global warming. Motives are always mixed.

Aspiring politicians are taught that their job is to accumulate and retain power.

Without power, one cannot be effective at ... whatever it is one is in politics to accomplish.

It is assumed that there is something that is possible and worthy to achieve through this accumulation of power.

The power itself, regardless, is indispensible.

We do not have widely agreed methods for determining what actions are worth accumulating power in order to take. The accumulation itself, however, has been amply studied and can be taught and practiced.

Seems to me there are two solutions to the problem Matt describes :

1. Attempt to change human nature ( been there done that didn't work )

2. Reduce the rent-seeking behavior of politicians by downsizing government.

I doubt Matt is interested in doing #2.

In addition to changing human nature or reducing government, you can also create better institutions for government, something which Yglesias has been interested in. Perhaps government is inherently corrupting, but surely we'd all agree that some systems are worse than others.

So, Carter was a great leader because he:
- told the truth on the energy crisis and the need for action
- refused to spend a lot of additional money because deficit were long term wrong
- didn't invade Iran or bomb Iran because he was determined to bring home the Americans alive even if it meant losing the election
- refused to agree to health care reform because the economic crisis was too severe, angering a lot of people

And we know that he is fully commited to public service and isn't seeking power and fame from his almost three decades of service since.

And with Reagan, we see a man who was only interested in power and wealth because he didn't deal with any hard issue because it would cost political power (the tight money wasn't his doing - Carter appointed Volcker, and he could blame Carter for all the problems of Carter's price controls and foolish energy policies). Reagan was the fiscal responsibility president who doubled the debt in five years and set the course for another doubling of the debt five years after that. He never dealt with any of the hard foriegn policy problems, leaving Afghanistan and Pakistan a mess and promoting terrorism for political purposes. He rrefused to address the known environmental problems so today you can't safely eat the fish in many of the nation's streams and lakes because of the mercury without fearing mad hatters.

So, Reagan is a great example of the person who "really do want fame and power and it is amazing what they will talk themselves into to get there and to stay there."

I just heard an hour of Aspen Ideas Festival on my NPR-APM radio described as "Sandel explored this question with an audience at the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival. Also at this summer's festival, Kai Ryssdal, host of American Public Media's Marketplace, talked with Google chairman and CEO about his business strategy in a rapidly changing economy."

Sandel makes the case that the view that "everything can be handled by markets" is a slippery slope (he doesn't use the term but I'm lazy) that has removed the morality from any political decision.

If emitting mercury into the air is something that merely requires paying a fee to cover the public cost of children growing up intellectually stunted from mercury poisoning or others getting mad hatters, then the coal burning plants without mercury scrubbers are not acting immorally. If they can harm people without a moral condemnation, then I wonder, shouldn't drunks be able to get off after killing someone if they can pay off the victims - why should they face criminal charges.

In that market driven model where there is no morality, what difference does it make if you include provisions in a bill that favors one minority faction in another district who will harm your constituents, if you get an offsetting deal that harms another constituency in other districts to the benefit of one's own constituents?

Trading costs and benefits politically is just the market approach to problem solving and there is nothing immoral about it. Right?

Declaring things immoral, like pollution that kills the poor and powerless, is just not a good problem solving method, and instead the solution is to simply charge $10 a ton so that now killing people has been paid for with the $10 totalling $100,000 per death and eliminate the morality morass.

"At the same time, I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree [of] cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics."

Never mind public choice theory, is Matt like, 12 years old? Read no history whatsoever?

Indeed, hilarious and predictable.


Thank you for making the libertarian argument, or at least one of them. Things either hurt people or property, or they don't. If they don't, there's no need for a tax. If they do, then no tax will suffice.

And as for doing the right thing, how's about politicians don't tell people that the public option is the only way to create competition when that is bullshit.

My university has something very much like the "public" "option" that I have to pay for and then go beg hat in hand to opt out of and get a reimbursement and hope that my high-deductible option of choice will qualify again this year. The only difference is that while eventually you won't be able to opt out, I bet the government will be mandatory from the get-go, under the guise of "qualification." "Oh, your plan doesn't cover gender mods, request denied!"

Even a brief dabbling in human history will confirm not just that all sorts of people, including politicians, often do bad things -- which wasn't Yglesias' point -- but that we are all always prone to identify 'the right thing' with whatever it is we happen to want at the moment. The power of self-delusion, willful blindness, and self-imposed refusal to see anything but confirming evidence for the rightness of our self-interest appears in all eras and forms of government, and has been lately confirmed by various psychologists and behavioral finance gurus (operating on the usual principle that the social sciences tend to produce two types of outputs: claims that are obvious or tautological, and claims that are obviously absurd.)

"They want more personal influence and power now."

You find this "stunning"? I advise you to listen more to the part of your brain that has recently caught on to this truth. I'm not kidding. It sounds like you are on the verge of a breakthrough here.

Take a break from the mindset that the Government is always out there working tirelessly to solve problems, and those who protest them are necessarily selfish, evil and/or racist. Instead, notice that the supposed problems rarely get solved, but often announcements get made and votes get taken that allow people to feel better about things for a short time. And when the dust settles, all that has changed is that "they" have more personal influence and power, and that the villains have been properly identified -- those who oppose giving them more personal influence and power.

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