Self-deception as the root of political failure

That is a paper of mine from long ago, started in the late 1990s if I recall correctly.  It still seems relevant today, all the more so.  It ended up published in Public Choice, but here is an ungated on-line version, here is the abstract:

I consider models of political failure based on self-deception. Individuals discard free information when that information damages their self-image and thus lowers their utility. More specifically, individuals prefer to feel good about their previously chosen affiliations and shape their worldviews accordingly. This model helps explain the relative robustness of political failure in light of extensive free information, and it helps to explain the rarity of truth-seeking behavior in political debate. The comparative statics predictions differ from models of either Downsian or expressive voting. For instance, an increased probability of voter decisiveness does not necessarily yield a better result. I also consider political parties as institutions and whether political errors cancel in the aggregate. I find that political failure based on self-deception is very difficult to eliminate.

What I find strange is people who think this has only recently become relevant.


Kevin Simler wrote an interesting essay called "Crony Beliefs" on why people hold and maintain beliefs that are not correct:

The great thing about this article is that it is something we can all agree on. We may have different self-deceiving groups in our minds when we think about it, but I am sure we all agree that one side in the recent election has been doubling down on their detachment from reality.

Individuals discard free information when that information damages their self-image and thus lowers their utility.

So the interesting question is how much of that was deliberate. On the right side of politics I saw people who insisted that even to admit there was something wrong with Trump was to undermine the cause. And on the Democrat side, in retrospect there were a lot of signs that Hillary had problems, but remarkably little evidence that anyone could see it. However I suspect that by insisting that Hillary was inevitable, they hoped to depress Republican voters. As they did with Romney. Did they believe it? Or did they, to better fool others, fool themselves first?

There is a great book to be written on this election and no signs anyone will write it.

I think it's too early in the game for anyone to have a coherent and correct picture of what it all meant--least of all the people closest to the event. We all have ideas about what happened, but it will take a couple years to sort out who was hopeful and deluded or who was panicky and deluded.

As someone who voted for neither Trump or Clinton, viewing both as problematic, I think SMFS is correct that both sides view the other side as being self-deceiving. However, I'd say that indeed both sides ARE self-deceiving: Trump is not all bad, Hillary is not all bad, etc.

I do think self-deceipt is actually very important: you need this in some situations. Example: your team is down many points. You probably can't win. But your chance probably goes up if you convince yourself you can vs. "facing reality."

"As someone who voted for neither Trump or Clinton, viewing both as problematic, I think SMFS is correct that both sides view the other side as being self-deceiving. However, I’d say that indeed both sides ARE self-deceiving: Trump is not all bad, Hillary is not all bad, etc."

I would agree with this. Of course, I'd point out that both Trump and Hillary were pretty bad. I agree that neither was all bad, but they were both two of the worst candidates in my life time.

I don't mean from an electability point of view, but instead from a potential leadership point of view.

A great book? Here's a fine paper with the added merit of having been written beforehand.

Yep. I was saying the same thing at the same time.

The followup:

Both parties are committing massive political malpractice The Republican Party seems more likely to actually destroy democracy in the US while destroying itself; the Democratic Party is just destroying itself.

This isn't uncommon. Political parties fail and die. The problem is that the US political system doesn't handle this well. Duverger's Law means that we get a horrible two-party system and it's very hard for a new party to arise when the old parties are totally malfunctioning. To fix this we need to elect Congress, and all state legislatures, with proportional representation; a radical solution but the only one which works. This allows for old defunct parties to die and for new parties to arise in a *smooth*, peaceful fashion rather than with a Civil War (which is what happened the last time one of the US parties died).

Sounds like classic case of confirmation bias.

Speaking of confirmation bias: is there any literature that systematically looked at whether scholars studying confirmation bias are themselves victims of confirmation bias? After all, if you start out being convinced that confirmation bias is a widespread problem, then your own theory implies that you are likely to focus on evidence that confirms this thesis? Or are researchers somehow not prone to the biases they claim everyone else suffer from?

"Thank God for confirmation bias; otherwise, we’d never know when correlation was causation." – Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

David Brooks on the anti-Enlightenment movement: "Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements believe less in calm persuasion and evidence-based inquiry than in purity of will. They try to win debates through blunt force and silencing unacceptable speech." His column is about the ups and downs of the Enlightenment movement, and the historical path whereby anti-Enlightenment movements have been met by Enlightenment heroes who rose to combat them. What has surprised me is that those who are in today's anti-Enlightenment movement aren't sufficiently self-aware to know it, which helps explain the anti-Enlightenment movements of the past as well as today.

Anti-enlightenment ideas like censorship, political violence, and explicitly racist laws? Oops, you are being dishonest about "enlightenment".

Patiently, you are using crimes in the corners to paint some picture of the whole.

Berkeley protesters do not run California. They do not even run Berkeley.

Can you point me to the Democrat party that doesn't support hate speech laws, doesn't support protests that have aspects of violence, and doesn't support race-based laws?

US law is holding just fine on all those things. We have the First Amendment, and plenty of law on violence.

But you know that, or you would not have made the weak claim "protests that have aspects of violence."

Violence is most often a crime and arrests follow.

We sure as heck see this in these pages:

"Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements believe less in calm persuasion and evidence-based inquiry than in purity of will. They try to win debates through blunt force and silencing unacceptable speech.

They don’t see history as a gradual march toward cooperation. They see history as cataclysmic cycles — a zero-sum endeavor marked by conflict. Nations trying to screw other nations, races inherently trying to oppress other races."

Interesting though that "cycles" are bound to the zero-sum outlook.

Could it be that many americans think our government is broken and that we have nothing much to lose by "rolling the dice" even tho you may think it is dangerous? I voted for Bill Clinton and "w" so when I see McCain/pelosi criticize trump I wonder what accomplishments they can point to besides stonewalling and think maybe they have become "institutionalized and captured".

I think we can finger point in both directions - folks that only criticize in one direction are wearing blinders. I read both liberal and conservative press and I like this blog a lot.

See Conrad Black. The American political class has flubbed every single issue of note since the end of the Cold War bar welfare reform (and, in select areas, crime control). Note that there are vigorous lobbies in favor of gutting both welfare reform and crime control measures. Pelosi in Congress voted against welfare reform and neither one have ever had jack to do with local government.

And yet, they go on and on. Pelosi is 76, McCain is 80. They're both vested for handsome pensions after 30 and 34 years on the federal payroll (not to mention being married to people who have 8 and 9 figure sums in their coffers). Pelosi (whose non-political career consisted of a few years as a schoolteacher) and her septuagenarian deputy (who has held some sort of political office continuously since 1962 and hasn't practiced law in nearly 40 years) seem to believe they are indispensable (something about which Democratic members of Congress under 70 might wish to demur). Capitol Hill is one strange place.

Does anyone here not agree that Senators should retire at say, 72?

I think the danger with any mandatory retirement (or term limits) scheme is that it incentivizes trying to establish surrogates (such as family) in power, rather than trying to claw for every last bit of power yourself. Establishing surrogates in power may be a worse route for ambition to take because it is harder for us to observe, and fewer people think to observe it, than when someone who already has power tries to cling to it. Perhaps things are a little different if you're talking about a norm rather than a firm rule.

It is a topic where all possible solutions have problems, and so we may just need to choose the best of a lot of bad options. And the best may be letting 80 year-old Senators keep clinging to their seats for as long as they can.

1. Minimum age to run for Congress: 39

2. Serve no more than 10 years in any bloc of 12, nor be eligible to run if you would reach that limit of tenure midstream.

3. Mandatory retirement at age 76, and, again ineligible to run if you'd hit that wall midstream.

4. Four year terms for the House.

5. Have state caucuses in the House elect the Senate, with state governors as tie breakers. Elect 1 Senator per state.

6. Functionally differentiate the two chambers. The House would undertake to ratify treaties, compacts, declarations of war, letters of marque and reprisal and the rescission of same; adopt fiscal plans; and enact statutory legislation. The Senate would vet and recompose administrative rules. The president and his minions would compose administrative rules and negotiate treaties, but not have a veto over legislation.

Even better idea: choose congressmen and women at random for 6 years, pay them say $150k pa for the time plus an apartment in DC, no second terms and must resign all other public offices if selected.

If you are full FDR you exclude anyone who has had public office in last ten years, including teachers and police.

Why at random? And what's wrong with ordinary public employees? The real problem is that Congress is shot through with (1) people who've been in elected office or political staff jobs their whole bleeding adult life (Steny Hoyer, upChuck Schumer) and people whose pre-political career consisted of practicing law. About 1.5% of those in bourgeois employments are lawyers, but 70% of the U.S. Senate in recent years has consisted of people with law degrees. You'd do better to have a regulation that lawyers and public employees (and those recently departing such status) would have to circulate designating petitions with an understudy who was neither. Then, if a state party's slate for Congress had a quantum of lawyers or public employees exceeding 20% of the total, they'd have to draw lots to replace a certain number of their designees with their understudies to make quota.

Oh, the American political class totally flubbed "welfare reform" (which basically meant "throw starving families on the street and make them beg or steal") and "crime control" (which basically meant "give police whatever they want, even if it's proven to be counterproductive; also, send more people to prison where they can learn to be better criminals").

Crime has dropped because lead was removed from gasoline in the 1970s -- see the work of Rick Nevin.

At the national level the only thing the American federal-level political class has gotten right since the end of the cold war was reducing the nuclear weapons mess (under Clinton), and since GW Bush, they're actually screwing THAT up too.

@Rick, and this is a serious question. What are the accomplishments you expect to see from individual members of Congress? They're each one member of large chambers dominated by the majority party organization. Their bills have to get through the President, who is in charge of the massive bureaucracy that would most likely implement it.

In sum, it's a system. No one individual, including the president, has much influence on their own, and that was partly the idea. In my mind, the bigger issue is how to change a system that you think is beginning to fail. I guess I could see electing Trump as a wake up call to the Republican party. They may have an incentive to do things differently, but that's also a very noisy signal. Each Trump voter had a different reason for voting for him. There are probably large differences of opinions among them on how exactly the system should change. (Moreover, I don't see Trump as someone with the will, vision, or competence to improve the system, or "blow it up.") In any case, is your argument that voting for Trump was the best option you had?

What are the accomplishments you expect to see from individual members of Congress?

Shepherding a piece of legislation which makes the world marginally better, or at least making a contribution to public discourse by asking the right questions. Alternatively, frustrating the stupidities of the age or engaging in assiduous oversight. Bill Bradley might qualify under the 1st criteria, Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the 2d criteria, Jesse Helms under the 3d, and William Proxmire under the 4th. Otherwise, you're rank and file. Nothing all that wrong with rank and file. They just do not need to be there all that long. Mayor Daley's sock puppet John Fary was in Congress for about six years. He sat in the back of the chamber and read newspapers.

Those are reasonable criteria. Pelosi and McCain could qualify under this, depending on how one judges what is marginally "better" --- though on one those, you apparently had to vote for the bill first before you'd get to find out what was in it..... Oh dear....

Is it easier to blow it up than to improve it? Can you improve it without blowing it up first? If you try to blow it up, will this inhibit your ability to improve it (ie the resulting blown up mess is too messy to fix)?

I like Art Deco's position: all we should (reasonably) demand from our elected representatives is competence, moral and cognitive sobriety, and a commitment to sensible marginal improvements, while eschewing radical chic.

Be totally honest now, and tell me which of Trump or Clinton fits that description best: "competence, moral and cognitive sobriety, and a commitment to sensible marginal improvements, while eschewing radical chic"

Tbh, tough call. DT is a thin skinned narcissistic tool -- I mean literally a tool used to bash our elites -- who appears to not really think let alone ponder deeply before acting/deciding. But at least Trump gives the impression of sticking to the principles he has, whereas for all her apparent cognitive sobriety Hillary tries to be all things to all Dems, depending which way the identity politics winds are blowing.

@The Centrist: Why is sticking to one's principles a net positive when someone "appears to not really think let alone ponder deeply"? Seriously, do you think principled idiots should be in charge of things that could have a major impact on your well-being? I really struggle to understand how this is an argument for supporting someone.

The Centrist was a cute joke, but it is burned. Try a new handle.

". In my mind, the bigger issue is how to change a system that you think is beginning to fail."

OK, so we know from people who have studied governmental systems that the US federal system is really bad.
-- Presidential systems tend to collapse into dictatorships, for well-described reasons. We need a parliamentary system.
-- Bicameral legislatures are a disaster if there's no tiebreaker mechanism. We need the equivalent of the Parliament Act, or better yet, a one-house legislature
-- The Senate is so badly malapportioned (tiny Wyoming has the same representation as giant California) that it's not really democratic at all and doesn't reflect the will of the people. It should just be abolished.
-- The Electoral College has all the problems of the Senate plus it's subject to a game theory problem: state competition leads to the insane "winner-take-all" system which leads to the campaign being conducted in about four "swing states". It also needs to be abolished. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is one attempt to do this.
-- The House is gerrymandered to a dangerously anti-democratic degree. This needs to be stopped. A Boundary Commission (like England) would do OK, but proportional representation would be better.
-- First Past The Post elections with single-member districts make it very difficult for third parties to arise (this is Duverger's Law) so even when the existing two parties are moribund corpses hated by the majority of people, they still keep staggering on. The solution to this is Proportional Representation for the parliament, like most countries use.

Conclusion: we need a single-chamber parliament elected by proportional representation with a prime minister.

This may seem radical. It is, however, what US government experts have been recommending to foreign countries writing new constitutions since the 1940s. Most of those countries have done very well with these recommendations. Our defective, obsolete system is failing; we should replace it with a standard *best practices* system. I've been saying this for 30 years. Maybe today someone will listen.

"Could it be that many americans think our government is broken and that we have nothing much to lose by “rolling the dice”": that was my inclination on Obama/McCain. The latter was so obviously a bad candidate that it was reasonable to gamble on Obama even though virtually nothing useful was known about him. (Not that I had a vote.)

It was even easier for Trump/Clinton because the latter was appalling while the former was only absurd.

he latter was so obviously a bad candidate that it was reasonable to gamble on Obama even though virtually nothing useful was known about him. (Not that I had a vote.)

That's just silly. Plenty was known about Obama. It was known that he'd practiced law (pro-rating part time and seasonal work) for less than 4 years, that he'd sat in state and federal legislatures for 11 years and established himself as an expert in no area of policy, that the only (quasi) executive position he'd ever held was his tour running the Chicago Annenberg Challenge into the ground, that he'd squatted on the University of Chicago faculty for 12 years and published not one scholarly paper, that confidential papers from two opponents' divorce cases mysteriously found its way into the newspapers during his congressional campaign in 2004, that he was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1996 unopposed after filing a legal challenge which got his opponent tossed off the ballot, and that the only competitive election he'd ever run in without the court system employees carrying water for him was contra Bobby Rush, who cleaned his clock. On a more personal level, we knew that while his mother was dying of cancer in Honolulu, he was attending a stupid jamboree called the 'Million Man March'; that his circle of friends included William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn; that he loves to yap about himself (publishing two memoirs 'ere age 45), that his personal finances prior to 2004 were a mess, that Tony Rezko financed the purchase of his house. that he's spent two decades in Jeremiah Wright's congregation, and that he tossed his grandmother under the bus attempting to extricate himself from Wright's embrace.

OK, now do Trump. Oh, right, you won't, because you are a gigantic hypocrite. Which is why you have no standing here.

Here I'll help get you started using your own words: Trump is "an expert in no area of policy..." You can fill in the rest.

It remains to be seen whether Trump one alleged area of expertise (deal making; negotiation) can serve him, and us, well.

It's not rocket science. Stake out a position slash establish an anchor and make your opponent reveal something. Hint that you don't favour a one China policy, and see what China does. Whether Trump has the patience to practice this geopolitically is not yet clear.

While you're at it, Art, do McCain and George W Bush, too. Bonus points for describing how they benefitted from the status of their parents.

While you’re at it, Art, do McCain and George W Bush, too.

If there were an equivalent litany, you'd have offered it yourself.

Every working politician has shortcomings. Obama is atypical in that there just wasn't any there there. Ever. You'd give him points for avoiding domestic scandals and you'd give him points for a generic sort of intelligence (that he hardly applies). Well, Richard Nixon had no domestic scandals; he also had an intellectual depth which would put BO to shame. Didn't win him any friends among partisan Democrats until they wanted to use him after he'd died as a foil to trash other Republicans.

As for John McCain, he was an established maven in military affairs and foreign policy who had 25 years in Congress under his belt and 22 years in the Navy prior to that. His major shortcoming was a deficit of executive experience and a history of domestic scandals. He bears little resemblance to BO.

As for George W. Bush, he had two major shortcomings. One was a drinking problem in his late adolescent and young adult years (which appears to have included the use of street drugs prior to 1975). The other is that his business career seems to have benefited a great deal from a st**f***** mentality in the sectors in which he was working (or from the belief among his partners that his connections could prove useful to them with regulators or whomever). It's hard to say with precision because the people who write about it are 'investigative journalists', and if you've got no scandal, you've got no book (and journalists don't necessarily know jack about the business world). The phenomenon is more evident in his brother Neil's career, less evident in Jeb's career or Marvin's.

Consequential presidential candidates of the last generation have been men who performed passably as public executives (John Kasich, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, George W. Bush, Bilge Clinton, Bob Kerrey, Jerry Brown, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan, papa George Bush, Jimmy Carter), or knew how to work Congress (Newt Gingrich, Robert Dole, Richard Gephardt, Morris Udall), or were established mavens in one or another area of policy with long Congressional service (John McCain, Bill Bradley, Henry Jackson, Gary Hart, and, to a degree, Al Gore and Frank Church). Others are no great shakes but did give up lucrative or at least interesting careers in order to run for public office (Ron Paul, John Edwards, John Anderson) or built political careers from the ground up in inclement environments (Rick Santorum) or built a business (Paul Simon, Pat Robertson, and, especially, Ross Perot). BO's history resembles more the some of the demonstration candidates who run to press an issue or rally a constituency (Jesse Jackson is the most prominent example, but you could say much the same of Ralph Nader or Alan Keyes or Pat Buchanan or Shirley Chisolm - but even these had an originality BO lacks).

Art's still avoiding doing Trump, because he's a total hypocrite.

Hahahahaaaaaahaha. Funny sh!t bro.

The lot of you haven't any responses but ad homs directed at me and lies about Trump, who knows his business quite well.

Again, I'll help get you started: Trump is "an expert in no area of policy..."

I'm sure you can find many other things about him to badmouth as you do Obama and Clinton, because you are a thoughtful person and not a total hypocrite.

'I also consider political parties as institutions'

That might have been revolutionary back in the late 1790s. Late 1990s? Not so much.

Besides, someone who putatively heads a public policy institute should be well aware that politics is about achieving goals using whatever methods work, regardless of how one defines the truth.

>What I find strange is people who think this has only recently become relevant.

I'm guessing it's the same people who only recently believed that weaponizing the IRS is a problem.

When did the ordinary run of Republican not think weaponizing the IRS was a problem?

I think he means Democrats who are now concerned about Trump using the IRS.

Bizarre that politics, which is a method of distributing wealth without violence, is presumed to be something that is helped by truth-telling. Is West Virginia helped by admitting the negatives of coal? Is a poker player helped by being honest about their hand?

True believers aside, this is why Republicans can't be honest about climate change and Democrats can't be honest about identity politics.

An interesting paper. It seems to presage "death of expertise" concerns.

Perhaps it comes from a time when human tendencies were just being leveraged by newly social media. Consider:

"At the same time these individuals maintain a passionate self-righteousness. They are keener to talk than to listen, the opposite of what an information-gathering model would suggest."

One "death of expertise" argument is that social media empowered that kind of talking, and of course the finding of venues with positive feedback for any position.

I used to think that this or that comments section was bad in one way or another, and I could see that within themselves they often sought to deny reality.

I think what I missed was the scale.

If people all across the internet "are keener to talk than to listen" it makes it rather difficult for a society to be grounded in truths.

Maybe coincidence but an old 90s band, New Model Army has a great line in one of their songs about the modern age of communications just resulting in everyone talking at the same time -- the implication clearly being no one is listening.

The most egregious practitioners are the purveyors of identity politics, the higher education interest, and affiliated sorts in the social work lobby. Chances that someone in the Mercatus crew will be offering for publication acidulous critiques of black politicians, professional feminists, professional homosexuals, the higher education apparat, the public school apparat, the social work profession, &c. are just about nil.

When I said that people should hold their noses and vote for Trump I didn't know he'd turn out to be Literally Hitler.

Hitler had more self-respect.

President Donald Trump suggested in an interview broadcast Tuesday that former President Barack Obama was, in part, at fault for last month's raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, even though it was Trump who gave the order to carry out the raid.

According to very recent custom he gets to blame his predecessor for the next 7 years or so.

Right. Because inheriting a Great Recession is just like having a possible plan on your desk that you are under no obligation to approve.

Production levels stabilized in May 2009. No policy measure for which BO was responsible can account for that. He then set about building a policy monument to himself (or left Jonathan Gruber to build it). The banking legislation he eventually signed was hashed out in bull sesssions among lobbyists in Barney Frank's office and was notable for extending more discretionary power to regulators (we will grant you waivers) while not addressing key structural problems.

Have you no shame? Are you just trolling? It should be obvious to anyone fair minded, and yes, I include myself in that category, that Obama did precisely what most politicians do -- blame any shortcomings on their predecessors -- but for longer than any other politician I've known. Don't you think that the electoral losses suffered by the Dems since oh about 2012 reflect us voters tiring of that blame game?

To be honest, you make me question how to respond. The Great Recession was a once in lifetime event that shaped the Obama presidency.

Either you are too shallow in your economics to understand that, or too dishonest in your politics to admit it.

Regardless, any adult should understand "the buck stops here," and how important it is for a President to honor that responsibility. Especially in executive military actions.

The Great Recession was a once in lifetime event that shaped the Obama presidency.

It hardly shaped it at all. It was an excuse for Democratic pols to collate a pork barrel wish list and call it 'stimulus'.

Either you are too shallow in your economics to understand that, or too dishonest in your politics to admit it.

That's pretty funny.

Art is a great example of political self-deception. Denying the reality of the Great Recession. Wowzers.

Self-deception is the root of continued existence. It is a way out of the harsh realities of the world and the despair they can spawn.

Nietzsche says something like this: anyone can remember! Only the few have the ability to forget. Which is the most important? Forgetting.

Also somewhat related (and among my favorite Nietzsche quotes): "Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error."

I don't think the ability to deceive ourselves is happenstance. It seems like a very useful adaptation that can allow us to be intelligent and conscious while not giving in fully to existential despair. I think very few people can be Camus' Absurd Man, constantly and fully aware of the realities of existence while still embracing life.

It's harder to get things (like mastodon hunting) done if you doubt yourself...

Excellent contribution! Thanks for making available for we laypersons.
best wishes,

In more ways than one, everyone in this world acts for their own self-interest. As human beings, we have a mindset that they only way we will do something is if it benefits us in some way or another. This idea can be seen everywhere, politics, family, schools, and about everywhere else.
It is so true that people won’t tell the truth if there is any chance that it could have negative consequences for themselves. We will let someone else take the fall just to save a little face, this is a way of life now. Especially in politics. Like the post says, we have an abundance of free information, but don’t use it. Instead we work even harder to come up with something that may not be true or not the whole truth. This was seen so much in the recent election. The media manipulated information just to get a free story.
In this world we have to have our own interest at hand because no one else will, but that doesn’t mean that we have to mess with the interest of someone else to save ours. We need to take for granted the free information instead of trying to create something else to save ourselves.

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