While we practice social-distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, Aaron and Trevor remind us that there’s something about politics itself that is harmful to us and makes us worse people. If you think the political debate is rancorous now, just imagine what it’ll be like when it determines even more of our lives, as we become more and more connected.
What effect does politics have on our lives? How has politics evolved? How do political parties pin people against each other? How do you engage in politics? Is politics bitter by nature?
Do We Have a Duty to Vote? (with Julia Maskivker), Free Thoughts Podcast
Exploring Wealth Inequality, Free Thoughts Podcast
Politics Makes Us Worse, written by Aaron Ross Powell
The Three Languages of Politics, Free Thoughts Podcast
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:12 Trevor Burrus: Today, we’re recording in the corona virus outbreak, so rather than being at the Cato headquarters, where we usually record, Aaron is at his house and I am at my house sitting at my table. Aaron, where are you? In the closet somewhere?
00:26 Aaron Ross Powell: I am in my bedroom with the door closed, so hopefully that will minimize the sounds of the dog or if my children start arguing. If you hear any of that, I apologize. We’re doing our best with our impromptu setup.
00:39 Trevor Burrus: Well, maybe the kids will start arguing about politics. It will be perfect for this episode…
00:45 Aaron Ross Powell: I can bring them on.
00:46 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, which is called Politics Makes Us Worse. And you have Beltway kids…
00:49 Aaron Ross Powell: I do.
00:50 Trevor Burrus: So they might actually be the ultimate example of this.
00:53 Aaron Ross Powell: They’ve got plenty of disputes among themselves right now without introducing a political element. And as of now is, we’ll get to… When I define politics, they have very little political control over their situation, because they can’t really dictate what the government does for them.
01:11 Trevor Burrus: So their disputes are just normal.
01:13 Aaron Ross Powell: Their disputes are normal, but they could be worse, as we’ll discover today.
01:17 Trevor Burrus: So you do a talk to the interns and you’re working on a longer piece on this and we’ve written about it in the past too about how politics makes us worse, and I think a lot of people wouldn’t be surprised by that, especially in the current day, and maybe even specifically about corona, which is somehow getting politicized, and we can talk about that, but so your thesis wouldn’t be that surprising, that politics makes this worse because the other side simply refuses to give in.
01:43 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, I think a misinterpretation of my thesis would not be surprising, I suppose, is the way to put it. That everyone does agree that our politics seems to be pretty bad and we have lots of things that we complain about, so we can talk about, you know, how there’s no civility or we’re always angry with each other or that TV news is terrible and so on, and that politicians don’t seem to agree with each other, and why can’t they just set their differences aside and work together for things. So we complain a lot about American politics, but I think that we mis-diagnose the problems, and because of the way that we mis-diagnose the problems or at least the source of the problems, we don’t get to the underlying claim that you and I make, which is about the impact of the politics on us.
02:34 Aaron Ross Powell: So I guess another way to put this is we tend to think that the problems of politics are problems of other people, right? It’s that the other side is doing something wrong. We have ample evidence that people increasingly dislike the other side, increasingly see the other side as enemies, as more and more extreme in their views. We get people like… I think there’s a… Hillary Clinton, back when she was last running for president, said you could not be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.
03:10 Aaron Ross Powell: So this theme of it’s the other guy’s fault, I think, is central to the way that we tend to think about politics in this country right now. But what… The argument that you and I have been making for a long time is more that there’s something about politics itself that is harmful to us and degrades us and makes us worse. And so the politics is making us part of the problem. We can’t just point a finger.
03:35 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting, too, because in many ways, this thesis is not radical for a classical liberal perspective, say James Madison. I think James Madison would understand that politics has a place to do the things that government needs to do, which he thought was much less than what most Western governments do now, and that if you allowed politics to get in too much to other things, it would have this sort of corrosive effect that was endogenous to the spread of politics itself. It was being caused by politics, not some other thing. Not people are hating each other and then they have politics, it’s that they get involved in these political disputes and then they start hating each other as a product, as a product of those political disputes.
04:23 Trevor Burrus: But we’ve often hated each other in America, like the Civil War. We’ve had really tense times at different times where people hated each other. Is there something… Is this just a sinusoidal thing, where we go up and down and maybe we’ll have a kumbaya moment in like 10 years, or is this something worse?
04:43 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, I think it’s important first to acknowledge that we’re not claiming, I’m not claiming that the source of all disagreement among Americans, the source of all dislike among Americans is politics. We dislike each other all sorts of different reasons. We like each other for all sorts of different reasons.
04:58 Trevor Burrus: Especially you, Aaron, you dislike people for a lot of varied reasons.
05:03 Aaron Ross Powell: And there’s never been a golden age. That said, I think that there is something different that’s happening now, and it’s the result of a number of things. One is, as we get into what we mean by politics and how we interact in politics, as the state grows, and I don’t just mean in terms of how much money it takes in or how many weapons it builds, but in terms of how many decisions about our lives are being made by the state or being made by us through the state, we have… It exacerbates these problems, and the state has been growing, the government is more involved in our day-to-day lives than it used to be, although even then it’s a complicated story, because we can’t point to… Sometimes people make the mistake of saying, well, the federal government was much less powerful and much less involved in people’s lives in the 1800s, but they neglect that for a lot of people they were enslaved under systems that it allowed and they had a lot of control.
06:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And so things have gotten a lot better for a lot of people, but in general, the number of day-to-day things in our lives, what food we can buy, what clothes we can wear, what light bulbs we can install, where we can send our kids to school, all of these kinds of things, politics is more involved in them than it used to be, and that effect seems to keep ratcheting up. So there’s that part of it. There’s also a connectedness part of it that we’re simply more aware of each other politically than we used to be. And again, this has a kind of good and bad element, or at least a complicated shift, in that there sometimes is a mistaken view of the past that like, well, there wasn’t much political disagreement in the 1950s, everyone was kind of on the same page, because we were all watching the CBS Evening News or whatever, and we all agreed and the country got along and we settled our differences.
07:07 Aaron Ross Powell: But that’s not quite true, it just, it was instead that a lot of voices were excluded from the conversation, the voices of minorities, the voices of women, the voices of various different ideological groups were excluded from the conversation, and so it felt like there was more uniformity than that really was because we weren’t listening to people. Now, we’re in a world where we can listen to everyone. The internet brings us everyone’s opinion all the time, and we increasingly see just how divergent our opinions are. And when that becomes coupled with the increasing scope of the state in terms of like my life choices are being defined or being controlled by all of these other people out there, we have more reason to care about those divergent opinions. And to the extent that those divergent opinions will take us in directions that we find really distasteful, we have more reason to dislike the people who hold them, because it’s harder to just say, well, we can just leave each other alone, because we increasingly aren’t willing to leave each other alone.
08:08 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, and there’s a virtue there of localism, which itself is not libertarian, it’s connected to… Well, it’s connected to the proper scope and place of politics. And you’re correct to point out that the federal government was small, allowing for slavery, of course, say before the Civil War, and the state governments had a lot more control. And many of the things that the state governments did, slavery being the top, number one, but also in many states, the state governments were quite oppressive about various things. The Bill of Rights hadn’t yet been incorporated to the states, so there were speech restrictions, gun restrictions, police activities that would violate the Constitution now.
08:49 Trevor Burrus: But still you also had, say, the state of Massachusetts, which had also religious liberty issues at different times, but the state of Massachusetts was voting on its education program, and not voting on Texas’s education program, which would make a big difference in terms of how people in Massachusetts thought of people in Texas, if they ever did at the time, or had ever met anyone from Texas, they were sort of not meaningfully in the same country in terms of education policy and the sort of these high level normative things that matter to us. So it’s a strange trade-off. We say yes, the states were much more oppressive and there was high federalism, but maybe we hated each other less on some level because we weren’t trying to collectively make decisions with 330 or probably 350 million people at the time.
09:43 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure, and so I think here it might be helpful to just nail down exactly what we mean by political decision-making, because we tend… The term politics is fairly broad, we use it for all sorts of things that aren’t quite what I’m talking about right now. So we talk about people playing politics or office politics, which is intrigue and back-stabbing and gossiping and all of that kind of stuff, and that’s not really what I have in mind. What I have in mind is politics in the sense of attempting to influence. So when I participate in politics, I participate in politics when I attempt to influence the state to do things on a policy side that I would prefer.
10:29 Aaron Ross Powell: And so another way of putting that is, I enter into politics when I attempt to get the state to use the mechanisms of the control that it has to make decisions about your life. That would be, as you said, like Texas and Massachusetts voting on each other’s education policy. If I attempt to convince the state to pass a certain set of curriculum that’s going to be taught to your children, I am asking the state to institute policies and my preferences that override your particular preferences. And so, that’s politics, is when we seek to influence those tools. And so this would take the form of voting would be an obvious one. Like you vote for the candidate who’s going to do the things you want the government to do, as opposed to the things you don’t. But it also could be campaigning, you’re trying to convince your fellow voters.
11:20 Aaron Ross Powell: It could be direct contact with law makers, it could be the stuff that we do at the Cato Institute where we are publishing policy recommendations and hoping that regulators, law makers, agents of the state in one way or another will take our advice. Those are all part of politics. So politics is simply when you seek to use the mechanism of the state to influence the choices of others.
11:45 Trevor Burrus: Does the violence matter in this regard? Because it’s… The state doesn’t just ask people to do things. I mean, it does, it first asks, but eventually men with guns will come.
11:56 Aaron Ross Powell: So that gets to, I think, the first of the ways that politics makes us worse, is what it actually means when we do this because so, yeah, if I tell you, if I say, Trevor, I think that you really how to educate your kids in the following ways, and here’s the textbooks that I think you ought to use, and I advise you to do it. And you say no, you know, like thanks for the advice, but I prefer this other system, and I’m going to do that. That seems like a perfectly reasonable way to interact with each other. But with the state, the very nature of the state, the very nature of law is violent, with a threat of violence. That’s just what a law is. A law is a statement that says you must do the following or you must not do the following, and if you disobey this command, we will threaten you with violence and potentially use direct violence against you.
12:52 Aaron Ross Powell: And so in our regular interactions, if we went back to the education thing, it would look more like, I recommend that you use a certain set of curriculum with your kids, you say I’m not terribly interested in that, and I say, okay, well, you have to, and I hold a gun to your head, or I start taking your possessions until you acquiesce. And we can see that that sort of interaction in our regular lives is not only wrong, but is indicative of kind of a broken moral character, like the person who acted that way we would see as being profoundly immoral.
13:29 Aaron Ross Powell: So when we engage in politics, when we ask the state to do things, what we are doing is we are asking the state to apply threats of violence or direct violence to other people on our behalf. We’re saying, I want you to tell… Instead of me going to Trevor in saying, use this curriculum, I want you, agent of the government, to go to Trevor, because I’ve asked you to, and say use this curriculum and then threaten him with violence if he doesn’t, or take his money away from him in order to pay for the curriculum or whatever else.
14:00 Aaron Ross Powell: And so we’re still doing the kind of behavior that on an individual interpersonal level we would see as indicative of poor moral character, but instead, because we’re asking someone else to do it, we kind of trick ourselves into thinking now it’s okay. And we might say, well, yeah, it is okay. It simply is a fact that me threatening you to get you to do something is morally impermissible, but when the state does it, because we maybe have all agreed to the state or we have other reasons justifying its powers, it’s no longer not okay, it’s acceptable now, because we’ve gone through a political process, we’ve taken a vote. One side lost, the other side won and it’s now, we’ve kind of washed it morally clean.
14:44 Aaron Ross Powell: And I think that first we can, as we talked about in past episodes of Free Thoughts and we can put links to those in the show notes, the arguments for why it’s morally clean are maybe not as strong as a lot of people think. But also that sort of behavior, seeing other people as being in the category that we can kind of threaten to get our way with changes the way that we think about them, right? If I have an argument with you and at the end, we don’t agree, but I say, but I respect the fact that we disagree and I respect the fact that we want to lead our lives in slightly different ways, I am recognizing a certain level of shared humanity and dignity in you.
15:37 Aaron Ross Powell: But if instead, I say, well, you didn’t agree, I’m going to go and ask this other guy to force you to do it, you’re lessened in my moral calculus, I’m seeing you as less than the fully-dignified person that I did before. And so, the extent that we do more and more and more of that, we’re kind of cheapening our views of our fellow citizens, we’re seeing them as the kind of people that we can boss around, and they’re increasingly then seen as either the kinds of people they can boss around too, or as the kind of people who are going to boss them round, and nobody likes the kind of person who goes around bossing them around.
16:19 Trevor Burrus: Well, everyone would be listening to this and say, okay, Aaron’s just straight up pitching anarchy, sounding kind of Rothbardian. And if that’s the case, then like, if you really want to live in a world where people boss you around and do things to make you go their way, go live in an anarchist world where people will do that a lot more, isn’t the virtue politics that it’s actually that the loser… You have a method of choosing an election or choosing a policy, and the loser essentially agrees to abide by the result of that process, which is what decreases violence overall. And so, it’s not that I lost an election and therefore I’m going to get my army together and come invade, it it says, alright, that was a fair process and a fair election and my side lost and better luck next time, but we’re still living in this society together. And so overall, this is diminishing violence and hatred, it’s not increasing it.
17:19 Aaron Ross Powell: I think that can be a powerful argument for the necessity of politics, but it’s not an argument for an unlimited scope of politics. So it may well be that there are issues that need to be settled in a way that requires the loser to comply, and where it’s important enough that they do, that we can use violence to get them to. And in those situations, politics is valuable and it may be the best way to get everyone on the same page or at least to get the losers to willingly comply or feel better about complying with the commands of the winners.
18:00 Aaron Ross Powell: The problem is that as we use politics, there’s a tendency to get addicted to it, to say, okay, well, it’s one thing if we need to settle this big important matter and this is the only way to do it, but once we’ve used it, and once we kind of gotten a taste for it, we tend to run with it, we tend to say, okay, well, this other thing, we move from crucial issues that have to be settled to I simply have preferences, I have tastes and I’m uncomfortable that there are people out there who are doing things that run counter to my preferences, to my tastes, and so hey, I’ve got this tool over here that I can use to get them to stop or I’ve got this tool over here that I can use to get them to pay for my preferences and my tastes.
18:46 Aaron Ross Powell: And so we stop… It’s not that we shouldn’t use the tool and it’s not that we should have an argument against the tool even existing in the first place, it’s that the tool is not perfect and it has costs in using it, and we don’t spend enough time thinking about those costs. And as a result, we abuse the tool and then things get much worse than they could otherwise be if we instead said here is a powerful tool that has costs, but sometimes it’s the right one, we’re only going to use it when it’s the right one.
19:18 Trevor Burrus: I think it’s a Cato HL Mencken fellow Penn Jillette who has said that when he thinks about the government and whether or not something should be done by the government, he first thinks about it as an act of violence, and says would I personally get a gun and go to someone and say maybe you have to quarantine yourself in your house, for like a current thing, and not… If you’re diseased and not leave your house, that’s a possible, violence as a last resort, but you don’t want to.
19:52 Trevor Burrus: But when I get a gun to make someone build a library, to say we need a library and then hold a gun to that person and say build the library or fund the building of the library. So, why don’t people think about the state that way? It seems very radical to say the state is just violence, but if you tell people that they will probably end up agreeing with you. So why is that not on people’s mind all the time?
20:19 Aaron Ross Powell: I think first, most people just don’t think about these kinds of issues much at all. They’re just, this is the way we do things and we don’t examine it much, but I think there’s also reasons that it continues to be the way we do things. First, as I said, is the distancing. So, if you told people, hey, do you think that we should vote for there to be a library, or to take an even more mundane example like New York City attempting to ban the sale of large sodas because we thought it was bad for people to be drinking large sodas. And so if you ask people, do you think it would be better if fewer people were drinking large sodas, a lot of people would say yes.
21:03 Aaron Ross Powell: And if you said to them, do you think we should pass a law saying you shouldn’t buy bad sodas or large sodas, you can’t buy them, I think a lot of people would say, sure. But if you said, okay, well, what that means is if we pass this law, you personally need to stand on the street corners and when the street vendor at the food cart tries to give out a large soda, you need to point a gun at them and threaten them, or you need to go and physically destroy their food cart, like you, the enforcement of this law falls directly on you to carry out. I think a lot fewer people would be behind it, because they would see, they’d have to look into the eyes of the person they’re using violence or threats against and would be troubled by that.
21:47 Aaron Ross Powell: This is similar to like a vegetarian arguing a lot fewer people would eat meat if they actually had to kill the animals themselves. So the distancing plays a big role, is that instead it’s more, I just, in the abstract, I support this thing, I vote for someone who says they’re going to do it, or I check a box when I go into the polling place to say, yeah, ban large sodas, and then I don’t see the enforcement, I’m not… Someone else is carrying it out for me. And in fact, in a lot of cases, the enforcement is not even near me.
22:19 Aaron Ross Powell: We’re voting about things that are being done to people who are much further away from us, because preferences tend to be geographic and so the people, everyone I know is already doing the things that I want them to do, because it’s we share the same preferences, it’s the people over there who are doing things differently and so they’re the ones who are going to be forced to change their ways, and I don’t really associate with the people over there, so I don’t see it.
22:42 Aaron Ross Powell: So I think that’s a big part of it is not recognizing is that that distancing makes it easier to ignore or not be aware of what’s actually happening when we pass a law. And again, some laws, it may be, they’re certainly important enough that we want that, right, like that we want the enforcement and that we might even be willing to carry it out ourselves, but for a great many, the large soda ban, they probably don’t rise to the level where it’s okay.
23:11 Trevor Burrus: And as you point out, it’s also… It gets even worse where it’s not even that the state can help you forget the violence that is at the core of the state, but it also will tell you that what you’re doing is virtuous.
23:26 Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, so we all… We take civics classes or you learn the history of the American founding or you drive around DC and see the buildings that are very intentionally built in this classical style that makes it feel like they’re part of a long tradition going back to the Athenians. And you are basically trained to see this as the best way to interact with each other. We tend to venerate the people who engage in politics. The heroes in American history are the ones who either themselves were in the government and made changes or the people who directly influenced the government to make changes. We are told that this is virtuous and, in fact, we’re often told that doing, trying to change the world in ways that are different than political is not virtuous, arises the level of selfishness.
24:19 Aaron Ross Powell: So we tell people, like if you identify a problem you’re a caring person and you identify problems like poverty, if you care about that, if you are genuinely caring person, what you are going to do is try to agitate for policy changes that will directly address it. And I don’t mean in the libertarian sense of you will advocate for getting rid of regulations that are making it harder for the poor to start businesses. What I mean is you will advocate for direct support, increased welfare programs, whatever else. If instead you say, there are people out there who don’t have enough money right now, I’m going to start a business and give them jobs, we tend not to venerate you to quite the same extent.
25:04 Aaron Ross Powell: There are some businessmen that we look up to, but by and large, we tend to think that that’s not as noble a profession as becoming an activist or running for Congress or becoming President or whatever else. And so, we’re told like, hey, if you want to be a good person, and we all want to be good people, and not just like we want to be good people, but we want other people to see us as good people, in part because we don’t want to be seen as bad people, and also because we judge our own goodness based on whether other people in fact think we’re good, then you will be pushed into embracing politics more and more, and you’ll be pushed away from embracing alternatives that might be just as effective, but without the pernicious effects of the application of violence and the treating each other in the ways that we’ve already discussed.
25:55 Trevor Burrus: Well, last week on Free Thoughts, we had Professor Maskivker who argued that there’s a duty to vote, and we pushed back against that. But it sounds like… You don’t think, I’m pretty sure you don’t think there’s a duty to vote, but if we had a government in the proper scope or a much more libertarian scope where it was using violence in ways that maybe possibly we’d be willing to pick up the guns and do it ourselves, and then so that would leave more more room for private action, more room for charity and things like this and ways to make the world a better place.
26:30 Trevor Burrus: But in that world, it seems like politics wouldn’t make you worse necessarily, and it might be important for you to vote in order to choose between better options in the political realm.
26:43 Aaron Ross Powell: That’s probably true, and as I said earlier, this is not, I’m not making an argument that we should abolish all political processes, all political decision-making, because if decisions have to be made, it may very well be that politics is the best way for them to be made. The alternatives being like a dictator who just makes the decisions without any input from the people is probably not as good as a democratic system. So I think…
27:10 Trevor Burrus: Or it might be better for the life of the dictator, and then you have to deal with the next dictator.
27:15 Aaron Ross Powell: Right.
27:15 Trevor Burrus: If you’ve got a really good dictator it might be better, but I wouldn’t generally count on that.
27:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, that’s probably not prudent to bank on an unending line of good dictators. So yeah, I think even I could say, in an ideal world, in a world where we weren’t doing all of the things with politics that we probably shouldn’t be doing and we were only using it in those areas where it was absolutely necessary, then we could all get behind it. And in those situations, maybe in fact, like voting there’s, there’s nothing inherently wrong with voting, but it’s what you’re choosing to do with it, it’s how you’re choosing to influence the state, it’s what you’re attempting to get the state to do on your behalf.
27:55 Aaron Ross Powell: And so in the world that you just outlined, where we were only voting on things that were in this category of like these are where this tool actually is probably the best tool we have, then yes, go ahead and do it. And yes, it may actually be like the moral thing to do, potentially rising to a duty to participate in it, but I think that there’s like a binary here, in the sense that it feels like people seem to think, okay, either we have, we zero out politics, so we have anarchism or the absolute minimal state or whatever, and the libertarians who have kind of the libertopia, this unrealistic view that we can just live together without any disagreements or whatever. It’s either that or it’s the status quo, that this is… What you’re saying is we should always only abolish, and I don’t think that’s the case.
28:48 Aaron Ross Powell: I think that instead what we can do is we can say like, look, maybe we’re using it too much, maybe we should start to scale it back. And maybe when I go and vote, I should only vote for things that are either scaling it back or are those few areas where it seems to be really necessary or the best tool that’s available.
29:09 Trevor Burrus: So being a good person can have multiple facets to it, as you discussed, but you also want to point out that if we kinda go from the very beginning, and we’ve been talking about this a bit, but I like how you break it down with a… Think about being a good person first and what that requires for you to be a good person, and then try and figure out where politics would fit into that life. How does that process work?
29:34 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, so I think if ultimately the argument is that politics makes us worse as people or interferes with us being as good as we could be, then yes, we should start with what we mean by a good person, because it’ll clarify the impact of politics on that. And so in that regard I think a good person is a person who has internally certain traits, and these are the traits that we tend to admire in other people, that when we look up to someone, these are the traits that we see them possessing. And so I break these down into three. I say that they’re virtue, wisdom and knowledge. So virtue is right moral motivations. So you’re a courageous person, you’re a generous person, you’re a kind person, like those sorts of traits, you’re motivated to behave in admirable ways.
30:30 Aaron Ross Powell: Next, you need knowledge in order to be a good person, because being a good person is something that you do in the world as opposed to just like something that exists only in your own mind, you need to have a sufficient level of knowledge about the world such that you can act well, so that you’re not going to go wrong in the sense of, I think that generosity is called for in the situation, but in fact I didn’t know enough about the situation and generosity was potentially the wrong thing to do in it.
31:03 Aaron Ross Powell: And then the third thing that you need is wisdom. And wisdom is what sits between virtue and knowledge because, as I said, virtue is just a recognition of certain moral drives and knowledge is information about the world. Wisdom is what says, okay, which moral drives apply to the given situation. Taking the knowledge that I have, what moral drives are the ones that apply here and how much? So sometimes say anger is the right response to a situation, but that doesn’t mean that infinite anger is the right response, that blowing up is the right response. But sometimes a situation might exist where like if you’re not getting at least a certain level of angry, you’re doing the wrong thing.
31:49 Aaron Ross Powell: So, wisdom is what helps us tie together our moral motivations and our knowledge in appropriate ways. So those are the internal traits, I think, that… So someone who we see as virtuous, and knowledgeable and wise is the kind of person that we tend to admire. Then you need external stuff. Because we’re not born as good people, we learn to be good people and we act upon this, we develop. It’s a skill that you acquire and practice. And so we need… We do that in an environment, so that environment needs certain things.
32:32 Aaron Ross Powell: The first that it needs is a degree of freedom, in the sense then that we are the ones who can choose to act rightly or wrongly. When we’re acting well it’s because we chose to do it. We have the opportunity to explore different ways of living. You need freedom to be the person that you want to be. We also then need a level of wealth. It’s hard to exercise all the virtues if you’re starving to death. And so the more wealth that we have, basically the more options that are on the table to us, both in terms of variety, that there’s more opportunities out there to explore different ways of living and learn from each other, and in terms of just having avenues open that I may be able to see that there are different paths that I could take, but a lot of them are cut off from me, because I don’t have the level of wealth to pursue them.
33:27 Aaron Ross Powell: And then finally, we need what we could call moral role models or educators, because as I said, we’re not born with these skills, we’re not born with all the virtues, we’re not born wise, we’re certainly not born with all the knowledge of the world, and so we need to learn that stuff from other people, from literature, from the examples of others, from teachers and so on. And so, those external things allow us to both cultivate these internal traits and to then fully put them into practice. And so, that’s… Those things, the internal traits of virtue, wisdom and knowledge, and then the environmental characteristics of freedom, wealth and moral teacher, call it, are I think what’s necessary for us to both become good people, and then to fully live out our lives as good people.
34:23 Aaron Ross Powell: If you took any one of those six away, it would either become more difficult or impossible to be what we would consider to be like fully good human beings. And I should clarify just quickly, when I talk about knowledge or wealth in particular, I’m not making the kind of absurd claim that you have to be rich to be good or that you have to be highly educated to be good. That’s not true at all. These are like, these are minimums. So when I talked about… It’s hard to do this, it’s hard to develop these traits if you’re starving to death, like not starving to death, having the wealth to overcome that, but there certainly is a point of diminishing returns in that regard. And again, knowledge too. And we know lots of people who have huge bodies of knowledge, but don’t seem to really have it when it comes to acting in the world, and this is like…
35:17 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, so if you think something helps people. I mean, if you have some crazy belief like water is poison, and therefore you don’t give people water, then you don’t have the knowledge to help people out. So it’s something very basic, like that.
35:31 Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, yeah, these are more basic levels. This is, this is not like an argument that precludes a whole bunch of people from participation.
35:39 Trevor Burrus: It sounds like… I felt like the last 10 minutes, I don’t think Aaron has seen this, but I felt like I was getting a lecture from the character Chidi on The Good Place about how to be a moral person. But it’s interesting, if we go back to this question of like where do we go wrong, or how does this go wrong, in terms of politics and the forces surrounding politics pushing us to be worse people. I mean, you kind of want… If you went through the steps and you say, okay, step one, we set up a political system, it doesn’t necessarily make us bad at the beginning. And then, people can increasingly ask that political system, so, step two, people increasingly ask that political system to solve problems with violence that they are unwilling to solve or frustrated with and unwilling to solve via just asking people to change their preferences, so education and things like this.
36:34 Trevor Burrus: Step three, those choices get more taken over by the government, more violence is used, and it’s so pervasive that it’s almost ignored by people and their participation is seen as necessary. You get to step four, which is that, increasingly, as you see the other person winning, say, a local school board election, or winning a presidency, and you feel like they’re going to use violence to take away the things that matter to you most, or take away your healthcare, destroy your way of life, I think something like that was what Hillary Clinton said. Then you start believing, have biases and hanging out only with people that agree with you because you think they’re going to take everything away and you start believing these things about those people, because the system has put you in to this sort of combative position over these things that matter most to you.
37:26 Trevor Burrus: So you get your own newsfeed, ‘cause you can’t even stand to listen to them, and you start only hanging out with people who are like-minded. And then every election is now an apocalypse, which is where we are today, every election is the end of the world, is our way of life as we know it if you don’t vote for the right political party. And none of that seems good for our souls.
37:46 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, so I think you can go through… So the story that you told about the steps of politics, you can take a similar like approach to looking at the six characteristics that I gave and seeing how does politics in a politicized environment impact each of them. Because, again, if to the extent that politics undercuts our ability to access or develop any of those six, it makes it harder for us to be good people leading good lives. Assuming you accept my breakdown of what that means.
38:19 Aaron Ross Powell: And so, yeah, so virtue. I think one of the chief moral principles is don’t use violence against other people. We can say there might be some exceptions of self-defense or whatever else, but by and large, one of the first rules we teach our kids is don’t hit each other. Don’t club someone over the head ‘cause you want the toy that they’re playing with, respect other people’s rights to make their own decisions. It seems just like core to virtue. And so to the extent that politics encourages us to do the opposite, not only does that mean we’re simply doing the opposite. So, we were behaving outwardly in a less virtuous way, but also I think there’s a tendency to think that maybe we can kind of wall off the political sphere and say, well, what happens in the political sphere stays in the political sphere.
39:10 Aaron Ross Powell: But these are all… These are habits, these are like habits of mind, habits of thought, habits of behavior. And so to the extent that we get used to thinking of other people as lesser, as beings who it’s acceptable to boss around in these really dangerous ways, or use violence against, that’s going to carry over, it’s defining the kind of people we are. And so, it’s lessening, it’s lessening virtue. And as you said, as we start to use this violence more against each other, we start to see each other more as enemies, and we start to hate each other. And internalizing that hatred is really damaging to our moral character as well.
39:49 Aaron Ross Powell: And of course politicians, like every election is an apocalypse, politicians, political parties have huge incentives to convince us that the other guys are even more dangerous and worthy of hate than they actually are. Because that’s how you get out the vote, that’s how you get people to donate to your campaign. You don’t raise a ton of money or turn out huge waves of voters by saying there’s not much a difference between me and the other guy or this decision is not going to be very consequential. And so, we’re instilling those sorts of thoughts and those sorts of traits.
40:21 Aaron Ross Powell: Wisdom, yes. We increasingly cut ourselves off from alternative sources of information, we tend to get, over-react to things, so we’re not applying the appropriate level of response because we’ve been told like this matters hugely or I have every right to do this, or the person that is on the receiving end of it is not worth my moral consideration.
40:48 Aaron Ross Powell: Knowledge, we put ourselves in filter bubbles, we get information from sources that align with our tastes or our political preferences and discount as fake news anything that might be from someone who disagrees with us, and so we’re cutting ourselves off from sources of knowledge and increasingly we are taking in as knowledge stuff that is anything but; misinformation, simply because it confirms what we already think. And then we can talk about the external factors too that obviously I by definition the more of our lives that are controlled by the political process, the less freedom we have.
41:34 Trevor Burrus: Well, not necessarily by definition, but if you win those elections or if the elections are over certain things, it doesn’t mean that you have less freedom, it means you have the options that you get because you won the election. The other side might not have those options.
41:50 Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, of course. If we win an election, in the sense that the preferences that we already had are the ones that are now going to continue to be acceptable or going to be subsidized, then we haven’t reduced our own freedom, because we’re still doing the things that we wanted to do, we’ve simply reduced the freedom of others. But first, we don’t win most or certainly not all elections. And so the more that we put into the political sphere, the more likely it is that choices we want to make are going to be cut off from us.
42:28 Aaron Ross Powell: BUt, and and the more that we put in there, the more we’re encouraging others to do the same, the more we’re encouraging others to fight back against what we want. And also freedom is not just my ability to do things, but it’s also my ability to see other people doing things that I might not have thought of, to learn from the example of others. And so if I’m cutting off all of their options, most of the time they may be doing stuff that I find distasteful, but some of them may use their freedom to do things that I think, hey, that’s worth emulating. And we’ve cut that off.
43:02 Trevor Burrus: It’s also interesting, too, that… Something that just occurred to me, where even if you win 51% of the vote, or 50% plus one person, and therefore, as you said, get your way. So you would have, if you weren’t politicizing say schools and if you would have sent your kids to, let’s say, a school where the focus is on art, or a certain type of educational philosophy, you would have done that if it was a free market, if it was just your choice, but then you win the election. And so they make all the schools that way, so you feel great, okay, my school, my kids are still going to the same school that I would have sent them to. But the interesting thing about building election-winning coalitions is actually a lot of people have to flatten their preferences down to like a agreed-upon common denominator, where they all say, all of us agree generally with this idea of schooling, so we’re going to vote for this whole group.
43:55 Trevor Burrus: So that you create this amalgamation that doesn’t actually represent almost any one in the group’s position, except for the fact that they’re not the other guy’s position. So you just get broad things like school choice versus not school choice, when there’s a bunch of things that could be happening, or this pedagogical idea versus this pedagogical idea, when there’s actually a bunch of nuances that the market would let us have, but they’re making us just choose between two things. I make that analogy with haircuts. Like if there was a national haircut referendum and there was, there was the short hair people and then the long hair, long hair people, and then in the middle, it would be like, you would have people who would choose the middle haircut.
44:39 Trevor Burrus: It would be like, well, that’s the middle voter right there. And people who would be just on the side of short would be like, well, I’m going to vote for the middle haircut, even though what I really want is short hair, and and the people on the long and the middle say, I kinda want the law haircut, but the closest thing for me is the middle haircut, so everyone kind of gets the middle haircut, which of course is sort of the median voter theorem to some extent. But also someone needs to stand up and be like, hey, why are we voting about this? This is insane, everyone can have their own haircut.
45:05 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, and the haircut is kind of a not super inspiring example ‘cause it’s not the kind of freedoms that we typically think of going to the mat for, but that’s exactly what happens and, and the more that we do that, and the more that we politicize our environment and the more that we’re encouraged to see politics as the way to make the right, make decisions about the scope of our lives and lives of others, the less we’ll even notice as those freedoms go away, the less we’ll notice that, hey, we could have done things differently because we won’t see ways that they’re being done differently.
45:44 Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
45:46 Aaron Ross Powell: And so then, we… So that’s freedom. Wealth, you could just listen to the back catalog of Free Thoughts to see the various ways that putting more and more of the economy under political control tends to reduce the amount of wealth in it, including and especially for people who are at the bottom, that if you care about people having more wealth you won’t want to politicize the economy.
46:14 Aaron Ross Powell: And then finally, moral role models. There’s a handful of ways that politics undercuts moral role models. So the first goes back to the freedom, that you have fewer people, you have fewer options of people who are out there doing things that you might want to emulate, if people aren’t free to do a lot of different kinds of things. You also cut yourself off from potentially valuable role models, because they’re in the other tribe, they’re in the groups that you find anathema, and so you could learn from them, and you could improve your own life by learning from them, but they’re Republicans and you’re a Democrat or they’re Democrats and you’re a Republican.
46:55 Aaron Ross Powell: Or they’re from another country, because nationalism gets bound up a lot in all of this and you say, I can’t listen to what they have to say or I hate them, without really examining their ideas. And so, you’ve decreased the pool of acceptable role models to you and to your children. And then finally, a moral role model is someone whose example we should aspire to emulate or whose knowledge we should learn from, someone who we would turn to for advice.
47:28 Aaron Ross Powell: And so to the extent that politics undermines all the other things we talked about, it undermines freedom and undermines wealth, but it also makes people less virtuous, less wise, less knowledgeable, that means that the overall quality of the role models will decline. If there are fewer good people, then there are fewer good people for us to learn from. And if there’s fewer good people for us to learn from, it makes it harder for us to then become good people. And then you just get… It just continues. It’s a cycle, and the quality of the role models declines. And so that one pulls in all of these other problems, and even then the problem there is that then that can undercut even the future generations, because even if they can strip back on the politics, they’re still working with lower quality role models than they might otherwise have.
48:17 Trevor Burrus: So how does a aspiring good person or a good person, I guess all of us are hopefully aspiring at minimum to be good people, deal with this political world that we are in. We’re in a pretty highly politicized world, and even coronavirus gets politicized. I don’t know how that happened, but how do you try be a good person in this world?
48:40 Aaron Ross Powell: I think there are two ways to think about what you ought to do. The first is what you ought to do in your actions in the political sphere or in the political world and then what you ought to do internally, like for your own good. So to start with the latter, be more aware of the effect that a politicized environment has on you. Be aware of what politics is when you’re undertaking it, be aware of how you are even through middle men engaging with your fellow citizens when you use politics against them, be aware of the tribalism that it creates, all of these problems of cognitive biases and choices of information and attitudes towards other people, like just be aware that that’s not natural to your environment, that’s being created, at least in part and in large part by the political actions of others and your own political actions.
49:49 Aaron Ross Powell: And so take steps to minimize that impact on yourself. Say, really, do I need to be this angry? Am I justified in being this angry, am I actually justified in despising these other people or is that just a trick of the politicized environment? And so, take those kind of careful steps to minimize the impact of politics on your own moral character. Then from the outward facing, like what do you do in a politicized environment? I would say it’s not an argument for just necessarily dropping out and saying, I’m not going to participate in any of this.
50:28 Aaron Ross Powell: First, because as we said, there may well be instances, there probably are instances where politics is the most useful tool and if it is, you want to make sure it’s being used correctly. And so, participation to ensure that is valuable. But also, you can participate in such a way to minimize the political sphere itself. You can say, look, I’m not going to vote to apply coercive force against other people to enforce my preferences. Even if I really think my preferences are awesome, I’m not going to do it.
51:04 Aaron Ross Powell: But if I see opportunities to vote or agitate for change, engage in activism, write op-eds, whatever else that will move things in a less political direction, will move politics back to being only used in those instances where it is the best available tool to us, then I will take those, even if it means directly engaging in politics, but I’ll try to do so in a way where I’m mindful of the effects on both myself and others of this political process.
51:43 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple podcasts or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.