Discover more from Aaron Ross Powell
Politics for Good People
A philosophy for good lives and skillful politics.
Politics is bad, but why? What is it about politics that consistently produces both toxicity and mediocre results? Why is it so corrosive to our mental health and emotional wellbeing, a place that elevates demagogues, turns us against each other, and doesn’t seem to accomplish the tasks we expect a government to carry out?
After years working in politics, I have an answer: Our approach to politics is both unskillful and unethical. We are, simply, bad at it, and this manifests as incompetence in applying the tools of government and immorality in the ends we use government to achieve.
We need to be more mindful in our political action, and more ethical in our political aims. But to do that, we need a new way of thinking about both. That’s my philosophical project. I want to offer a perspective on politics that I believe is more skillful and more ethical than how most of us go about it. I’ve been developing this argument for a few years now, but not in a systematic way. This essay is the start of correcting it. I’ll present an overview while providing links to other essays I’ve written building out its various parts. (And I’ll add more links as I expand and clarify these ideas in future essays.)
Our Broken Politics
There are two ways our contemporary politics looks broken. The first is just that the political environment is irredeemably toxic. We’re angry all the time—at each other, at outside threats, at inside threats, whether real or, all too often, imagined. Hardening partisanship means seeing half the population as an enemy, and then turning to media sources to confirm just how bad those guys are.
The second is that the government doesn’t seem capable of accomplishing the things it ought to. So much of what the government does costs more than it ought to, is lower quality than we’d like, crowds out alternatives, is mired in partisan bickering, or is lost among competing interests. We want the government to solve problems, not cause them.
Both these vectors of dysfunction have a common source: unskillful politics. When we engage with the political sphere, we do so without skill and without an ethical perspective. The “we” here includes both professionals (politicians, bureaucrats) and ordinary citizens. “Skillful” entails not just knowledge of how to use the tools politics offers in a way that accomplishes our ends, but also an ethical perspective in choosing what those ends are and in how we approach accomplishing them. Without ethics, we will direct politics to immoral ends, and we will contribute to the toxic environment and values that make politics ineffective and encourage and compound unskillful use. Without knowledge and method, our political actions will fail to achieve even worthy ends, or will result in more suffering than they alleviate.
What Politics is For
To get at what it looks like to use politics skillfully, we need to start with the question, “Use for what?” Politics has a purpose, and skillfully employing it means doing so in a way that achieves that purpose well. Of course, this is really a question about what government is for, or what the state is for. Because politics just is the mechanism we use to guide the state in choosing and carrying out its tasks.
So, what is the state for? Why do we have this thing at all? The answer, and one a skillful approach to politics demand we keep constantly in mind, is to solve social problems, to prevent them from arising in the first place, and to create benefits for those who live within—and occasionally without—its jurisdiction. In other words, the state is a tool for achieving the ends of a safe and prosperous society. It’s not the only tool we have for doing so, of course, and recognizing that other tools exist and might, in various circumstances, be more appropriate to use than state power is another aspect of skillful politics. But we can get to all of that later. For now, the state is a tool we use to prevent social problems, as well as maintain and improve the social and economic health of the polity. And politics is the way we guide and apply that tool. Thus to do politics well is to guide the state well in choosing when to use its power and how to use it.
A Political Physician
One way to think about this that I find helpful is to analogize the state to a physician. A physician’s job is to look out for the health of her patients, to offer them support in improving it, and to diagnose and treat problems when they come up. A physician is not the only tool we have for improving our health, of course. We might have a coach at our gym who gives us advice on productive ways to exercise, and recognizes barriers to physical health, such as injuries or lack of skill, and updates her advice to take those into account. But there are certain health related tasks that a physician is needed for, just as we can point to certain social ills where the state might appear to be the best solution.
At the same time, an unskillful physician can fail to diagnose an illness correctly, can prescribe an ineffective course of treatment, or can actually make our health problems worse. A skillful physician will apply her knowledge well, with the proper ends in mind, recognize when she needs to refer us to a specialist, and will constantly be on the lookout for more effective treatments.
In ancient India, the philosopher Siddhartha Gautama used this medical analogy to offer a method for addressing the stress, dissatisfaction, and suffering that was present in his life, the lives of those around him, and, indeed, the lives of all of us to this day. He didn’t set out to build a method for specifically political decision making, but politics is ultimately about those same problems, or at least some aspects of them, and the method forms the core of my approach to skillful and ethical politics.
A Skillful Political Method
This method depends upon asking four questions when we consider how we might use politics, or how we should approach a particular political question. These questions aren’t the whole of skillful politics, just as knowing facts of anatomy and physiology isn’t the whole of good doctoring, but they are the essence of it when they are applied and answered by someone with an ethical and wise perspective.
“What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” This seems like it would be obvious. We wouldn’t even be talking about politics in the first place if we didn’t have in mind something for it to do, or something that we hope to accomplish with it. But if you go to the doctor because your back hurts, you want the doctor to have a very clear sense that her task is alleviating your back pain. In the political sphere, we commonly frame the problem too broadly, for example, saying, “We want to solve the poor state of education” instead of “We want to make sure children are reading at a particular level at a particular age.” (And even that might be too broad.) If we don’t define the problem with enough precision, we won’t be able to tailor our solutions to it, and won’t be able to practically judge whether they are working.
“What is the cause of the problem?” Your back ache might be the result of an injury at the gym over the weekend. Or it might be cancer. Or it might just be that you slept awkwardly. Or countless other diagnoses. A skillful doctor will nail down exactly what is behind your pain before jumping to treatment. Likewise in politics, before we vote on new legislation or pass new regulation, we should be very clear on what is causing the problem we’ve set out to solve. Like the first question, this seems obvious, but it’s remarkable how often we either get this wrong, or don’t put effort into answering it in the first place. Part of this is because, while it’s complex enough to diagnose back pain, it’s orders of magnitude more difficult to zero in on the cause of poverty, or illiteracy, or an economic slump. (And this is made worse by our lack of skill in narrowing the answer to the first question, and so seeking to address a problem that is so big and nebulous that the potential causes—and interacting causes—of it are infinite.) There’s also another, subtler way we go wrong with the second question: we look not for what the cause of the problem is, but instead what we want it to be. Poverty is caused by immigration, because we don’t like immigrants, and so want to blame them for poverty. Housing shortages are caused by rich people owning lots of vacation homes, because we don’t like rich people, and so want to blame them for housing shortages. Skillful politics means resisting this urge, but resisting it means first recognizing it, something few of us are inclined to do.
“Can the cause be alleviated?” In the context of politics, and much else, this is really two questions. First, do we have a way to alleviate the cause? Is it something we are actually capable of doing? There might be political problems that, even if we know what the cause is, we can’t see a way to fix it. We either lack the knowledge or the power and ability to do so. Second, even if we can do it, are the costs so high as to make it practically impossible, or undesirable? If your back pain is cancer, it might be that we have a course of treatment available. But it might also be inoperable, and attempts to cure it are either themselves fatal, or likely to make your life so miserable that it’s reasonable to reject them. Likewise with politics. Some social problems might, in theory, be solvable, but the trade-offs so great that we have to reject the solution. If we have identified street crime as a problem, and criminals able to commit acts of violence without prevention as the cause, we might imagine undoing the cause by instituting a near total police and surveillance state, preventing anyone from finding the opportunity to commit crimes. But such a state would be unbearable and a profound violation of the liberties we view as worth preserving. It might just be that some crime is the price we pay for our valuable freedoms.
“What steps can we take to alleviate the cause?” This question only makes sense to ask once we’ve answered the prior three with sufficient clarity. If we don’t have a defined picture of what the problem is, don’t know what’s causing it, and haven’t asked ourselves whether it is within our power (or moral right) to fix it, then not only is there no point in coming up with a policy to address it, but rushing into a policy solution will prove no solution at all. If your doctor misdiagnoses your back ache, you might end up in a course of chemotherapy instead of physical therapy, and if a democracy misdiagnoses the sources of crime or poverty, we might end up with a populist backlash making both problems worse.
The final element of this method—after we’ve identified the problem, its cause, the possibility of a solution, and a course of action toward that solution—we need to hold fast to a feedback loop of assessing whether our proposed solution is, in fact, working and, if it is working, whether it is doing so at a cost we’re willing to pay. If the first treatment fails to cure the illness, a good doctor will go back, discover where she erred, and prescribe another. A sad fact of politics is that this feedback loop—which demands honesty, diligence, and a willingness to make hard choices—gets lost, because the public consciousness moves on to other problems or because interests form around our initial solution, creating barriers to the kind of revision necessary to perform politics well.
This method, whether applied to the problem of suffering, a patient with a back ache, or national problems, isn’t carried out by machines, but by people. The results will only be as good as the people who guide and carry out the process. If we are unethical, our politics will produce unethical results, because we will pick problems that aren’t problems, or enact solutions that callously cause harm. We will see hurting people, or oppressing them, as the aim of government and its politics, instead of helping and freeing them.
Skillful politics thus demands citizens who are sufficiently virtuous and knowledgeable to perform well, and who have the proper perspective on what is demanded of them and what they are using politics for. So much of what is wrong with our political culture isn’t (just) that we lack a proper decision making method, but that we enter into politics while ignorant of history, economics, political science, and all the other disciplines that help us answer the questions the method suggests. And we enter politics with corrupt values, an impoverished sense of our (inter)relationship with others, and a vision of the good society—and the common good—that, were we to achieve it, would represent a step backwards for wellbeing, progress, and morality.
Becoming ethical—for we are not born with all the knowledge and traits necessary to achieve that—is thus a central practice of skillful politics. And not just skillful politics, but skillful living, as well. We need to put effort into shaping ourselves into the kinds of people capable of doing politics well. Fortunately, what makes for good politics also makes for a good life, and so the hard work of bettering ourselves bears tremendous fruit, in terms of our own happiness and flourishing, even if we never set foot in the political sphere. Along those same lines, if we spend our time in the political sphere cultivating and practicing unethical habits and instilling corrupt values, those will inevitably carry over into our non-political lives. An ethical person is an ethical person wherever he finds himself, and it’s foolish to pretend you can be unethical in politics (or in business, or any other narrow domain of life) but leave that behind when you step out of it.
What are the features of an ethical person, and how can we cultivate those features in ourselves? That’s been the focus of quite a lot of my writing and so what follows is an all-too-brief summary of those works, assembling them as part of a larger picture.
A Liberal Social Perspective
Ethical politics demands the proper social perspective, one that takes into account and appreciates the fact that we share this world with diverse people, with diverse interests, in an environment that is constantly changing and evolving. This means that ethical politics begins by rejecting social conservatism (which, it is important to note, is critically distinct from individual conservatism), the idea that culture and the people within it should reflect our own, unchanging preferences. Not only is it morally wrong to demand that others seek the good life in a way of our choosing instead of theirs, but the belief that politics can stop social dynamism is a path to suffering, not just for others, but for ourselves. (See “Social Conservatism is Suffering”)
It’s not enough to simply say no to social conservatism. A fully ethical perspective will be one that sees toleration of difference as a moral floor, not a moral ceiling. We should strive to instead cultivate delight in the diversity of the world we find ourselves in, and make the happiness of others—even if they find it in ways we wouldn’t necessarily choose for ourselves—a constituent part of our own happiness. We should want others to be happy, and take joy in their achieving it. (See “Liberalism and Sympathetic Joy”)
This perspective need not be absolute, nor must it be present in the whole of the polity for democracy to function. But having it makes us better citizens, and strengthens our political institutions against populist, reactionary, and illiberal backsliding. Just as important, this perspective makes our own lives better and happier in an inevitably dynamic world. (See “Goodwill, Sympathetic Joy, and Liberalism's Foundations”)
This takes work. It’s not our default way of seeing others, and the urge to feel threatened by difference and change is strong. But we can undertake practices that will help to change our perspective and our values, helping us to be happier and our politics healthier. (See “A Crash Course in Cultivating Liberal Virtues”)
Politics is about association. If all of us were hermits, we wouldn’t need politics. Government’s purpose is to enable us to live together in mutually beneficial ways. But the values and perspectives that help us to achieve that by encouraging a more skillful use of the tools of governance are fragile. They take effort to develop, but can slip away if we don’t reinforce them, and especially if our peers don’t value them, or encourage us to behave in ways counter to them. Ethics is a habit, and bad habits and bad role models destroy ethics. It is important that we surround ourselves with admirable people who will encourage us to better ourselves. (See “Surround Yourself With Those Who Are Admirable, and Distance Yourself From Those Who Aren’t.”)
We must also recognize that consensus isn’t correctness. That sometimes the good man is the odd man out. Democracy has a tendency to drift into thinking that majorities are right, and that if the majority believes something, they can’t be wrong—or that it is unfair (or “virtue signaling”) to tell the majority that it is in moral error. While it’s often advisable to disassociate from unadmirable people, sometimes that’s not an option, especially if unadmirable views find wide purchase, and so ethics asks us to demand that majorities change. (See “Hate Can Be Mainstream”)
This still-incomplete portrait of ethical and skillful politics above doesn’t give us all the right answers. In fact, none of it tells us the specific details of how our institutions should be structured, what policies we ought to prefer, or who we should vote for in any given election. I don’t want to deny the importance of those questions or minimize their difficulty. Instead, I see my project as helping to define what we need in order to engage with those questions thoughtfully and morally.
I am a liberal, in the old school sense of that term, because I believe liberal politics are ethical politics and ethical politics are liberal politics. A full understanding of the nature of the state as a tool, including its limitations and alternatives, will discourage us from overusing it. And a strong ethical foundation coupled with knowledge of, and appreciation for, our diverse and dynamic world will encourage us to respect each others’ dignity, autonomy, and myriad paths to happiness.