Democracy Supports Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy: pretending to have qualities or beliefs you do not

To get away with saying one thing and doing another, it helps to put some distance between your words and acts.  It may not work to say “I always give to panhandlers I pass on the street” as you pass, and ignore, a panhandler on the street.  You might prefer to say that at another time and place, or to say something more abstract, with muddier implications about your specific behavior.

Further distance can come from hiring an agent to act for you.  If your instructions are vague and you reserve the discretion to fire an agent for ambiguous reasons, then you can claim you wanted your agent to do X, while making sure your agent understands that you really reward Y.   If your agent is caught clearly doing Y, you can fire and disavow them.   This works especially well if you can implicitly threaten an even stronger punishment if your fired agent tells folks you made it clear you wanted Y.

The more important an agent is to you, and more attention you pay to that agent, the less believable it is that you were unaware of large deviations between X and Y.  So maximal hypocrisy can be achieved via the agents to which we pay the least attention.  And this is where democracy shines: the very structure of a large election ensures you the voter had very little incentive to pay attention.  Since you had almost no chance to change the outcome, you of course didn’t pay great attention.  But you can still act outraged should an elected politician do Y when he said he would X.  Shame on him, for exploiting poor ignorant you.

The larger the election, the better your excuse, because the weaker your incentive to pay attention.  Longer tenures also help, as does divided government.  If you voted on hundreds of different offices, and did that ten years ago, how can you be very responsible for what any one of them did today?

Legal courts controlled at arms-length by large divided democratic governments seem a perfect storm for hypocrisy.  How can you be blamed for what some judge does, if he is only influenced indirectly by appellate courts, that are influenced by a supreme court, who were chosen decades ago by random politicians.  Surely you can’t be blamed when wannabe immigrants bodies pile up in the desert, when your troops slaughter foreigners in their streets, or when police use brutal street justice to keep your peace.  It must have been corrupt politicians or bureaucrats, or evil voters from the other party, or bought-off media, or just anyone but you;  you surely intended nothing of the sort.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • Bill

    The presumption you make in your argument is that we do not engage agents to watch other agents.

    You argue: ” And this is where democracy shines: the very structure of a large election ensures you the voter had very little incentive to pay attention. Since you had almost no chance to change the outcome, you of course didn’t pay great attention. But you can still act outraged should an elected politician do Y when he said he would X. Shame on him, for exploiting poor ignorant you.”

    Yet, there are television newscasters eager to tell the public of hypocracy; there are factcheck websites; there is PEW; there is (or some other such name); there are organizations you affiliate with.

    Not buying it.

  • Bill

    In addition to using factcheck on political facts, I might use spellcheck in the future in spelling hypocrisy.

    Also, we use political partiies as agencies to check facts, and other groups we affiliate with and trust, AARP, Cato (if you are so inclined) or Brookings if you so other inclined.

    The agency problem that was presumed is countered by a counteragent. Check.

  • Abdiel

    This is the oddest Unqualified Reservations post I’ve ever read.

  • Anonymous

    @Bill In addition to using factcheck on political facts, I might use spellcheck in the future in spelling hypocrisy.

    And link-check on URLs — the one for ‘hypocrisy’ is relative rather than absoulate and so points into OB.

  • Edward

    Relative to what?

  • Kevin

    nope, I intended for all that to happen.

  • tom

    Not Robin’s best! And I’m not talking about the spelling and punctuation.

    Robin’s examples (“Surely you can’t be blamed when wannabe immigrants bodies pile up in the dessert, when your troops slaughter foreigners in their streets, or when police use brutal street justice to keep your peace”) are weird for two reasons. First, I bet that democracy has zero causal effect on these things happening and is probably tied to a reduced likelihood of those things. Second, his list is an amateurish, cartoonish version of real events that are more complicated and not tied at all to his thesis.

    Robin, it’s like you have been shocked to discover the differences between rules and their enforcement and interpretation. It’s something scholars have been studying for hundreds of years. It’s most of what lawyers do. It’s what most political scientists do. Maybe you’ve been tricked all this time, but none of this is novel.

  • Charlie
  • Cyan

    …bodies in the dessert

    An incongruous mental image.

    Granting that the electorate really is disconnected and disinterested, the problem with the argument comes at the “…while making sure your agent understands…” and if “…implicitly threaten an even stronger punishment if your fired agent tells folks you made it clear…” stages.

  • Link and desert spelling fixed; don’t see a hypocrisy spello.

    Bill, the fact that voters could check doesn’t mean voters do check.

    tom, you really think our democratic government has little influence over immigration, war, and police brutality?

    • Bill

      It is a testable hypothesis on whether voters rely on agents to check for them, or are aware of issues. I am sure there studies of voter awareness of public issues. It shouldn’t be a matter of opinion: Bill says, Robin says, Bill says…back and forth. And, some people simply rely on past checking to direct their current attitudes toward the same or similar matter. My opinion of some matters is based on prior study of the same or similar matters.

      The only area where voters may not check is, oddly enough, on local matters where there are no agents. I mean, how well informed are you about some tax increment financing project that will impact your property tax bill as oposed to how well informed are you about the national health care bill that gets discussed ad nauseum on the evening news.

      The close in is not examined, because there are no agents you can rely upon (because there is no critical mass to support research) and the more distant (such as federal matters) have more than enough informed agents willing to bend the ear.

    • tom

      Robin, I’m not denying that our government is responsible for the examples you give. I’m denying that these policies are connected to democracy versus other forms of government. I think you are arguing that there is a connection. If you are only arguing that democracy causes hypocrisy, but that the hypocrisy is not connected to these results (i.e., that we would have gotten to the same place honestly), then there’s not much point.

      And the ‘elites’ and ‘rule-bending’ are not new ideas and. Look at anything written about huge trans-national bodies like the GATT/WTO and EU (which are not especially democratic).

      And simple rules may be the way to reduce discretion. Smaller, more responsive government may be the way to avoid the disconnect between the governors/agent and the consent of the governed/principals. But even without an elite conspiracy to increase the discretion of the governors (and I’m not denying there are many, daily!) there is a huge pull to larger networks and eventually one network. Larger networks almost certainly mean more complicated rules.

      • David C

        What if instead of a democracy we lived in a monarchy? I mean a true monarchy and not a monarchy pretending to be a democracy. How often is the general public ever blamed for anything that goes wrong with government? How often would a monarch be blamed for something that goes wrong with government? I would think a monarch would be considered much more responsible in quite possibly every reasonable scenario.

  • Bill

    Oh, and I did say voters do check; I didn’t say voters could check (those were your words).

    I did say they use agents or persons they trust to check. And, they do.

    Finally, I think it is a bit strange that one who would rely on prediction markets — aggregations of opinions presumably based on fact — would be making this argument.

    See any inconsistency. Or, is it garbage in garbage out in prediction markets.

    • David C

      No, they don’t check.

      “polls show that a majority of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, or explain what the Bill of Rights is. 24% could not name the country America fought in the Revolutionary War. More than two-thirds of Americans don’t know what’s in Roe v. Wade. Two-thirds don’t know what the Food and Drug Administration does. Some of this stuff you should be able to pick up simply by being alive. You know, like the way the Slumdog kid knew about cricket.”

  • Fictional evidence warning: Sideshow Bob explicitly argues this as he is being carted away in the episode of the Simpsons where he runs for office.

    I’ve heard this same explanation (from either Drezner or McArdle) as a reason for why politicians (particularly Congress these days, and perhaps the E.U) delegate authority to institutions more immune to political pressures. It gives them an excuse to voters for unpopular policy.

    Off-topic, but this is so up your alley, I’m surprised Rojas didn’t cite you.

    Bill: It’s pretty well established that voters are remarkably ignorant. This goes back to Philip Converse, it gave rise to the “rational ignorance” literature, it was recently discussed in Rick Shenkman of GMU’s “Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter”, and of course it is exhibited in Jay Leno’s street interviews.

    There are significant differences between prediction markers and democracy. Prediction markets ensure participants have “skin in the game”, give opportunities for the informed to exploit the ignorant, and don’t weigh everyone equally.

    • Bill

      Rational inattention, at least as it is used in marketing, means that it is rational to be inattentive because there is an agent who is attentive and you are relying on that agent or other attentives whom you follow for your action.

      Think of it this way in a market context: If you are a grocery store, how many returned products do you accept before you say I will no longer carry this product…just a few attentives swung the decision of the store. Or, put it this way, do you fully read the article on a new speaker system, or do you look at the rating and compare one rating to the other before deciding, without reading all the articles? Rational inattention is rational because there is attention to an agent. There is no rational ignorance, which this post posits in it claim of the hypocrisy of democracy.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        How many hairs do you have on your head? Do you lack the means to count them? You could gain such knowledge if you wanted, but you know it wouldn’t be a good use of your time (because knowledge of such a thing is mostly useless). You are rationally ignorant about the number of hairs on your head.

      • Bill

        Jayson, I have no need to count the hairs on my head.

        I am bald and know the answer.

        But, if there were value out there for me to count, then…one little hair, two little hairs…

  • Cezary

    That is the representative democracy supports it, the direct democracy might change the picture a bit, but I understand you concentrate on the US and not on Switzerland or Nauru or any other nation for that matter. 😉

    • bgreen

      direct democracy is the way to go. cezary dont forget the US only has a short history of democracy (1960’s).

      “Leadership” as ballyhooed by all and sundry has been shown to damage an organization where efficient communications exist. with the web, politicians, ceo’s etc should be receiving pink slips.


  • bock

    Yeah, Moldbug has been on vacation a while.

    I always liked Socrates 2 major criticisms of democracry. Mainly, either:

    1. People wouldn’t know that they wanted; or
    2. People WOULD know what they wanted and then VOTE for it.

  • Another benefit is that politicians who are closest to an unpleasant decision can make the selfish choice and justify it on the principle that it’s ‘what their constituents want’ and it is their sworn duty to follow their constituents (at least this time!). I’ve seen politicians do this when confronted with the harm of their policies many times.

    So in this way both voters and politicians can pass the buck to the other side when needed. Selfish decisions can be made, but nobody needs to feel like it was up to them. And politicians get to make up for the unpleasantness of the decision with the fact that they are obeying some other moral principle.

  • I’m surprised Robin missed that secret ballot provides another layer of defense – “I voted for X” when defending himself against supporting policies of Y, who he actually voted for.

  • terrymac

    Excuse me, but blaming the voters and claiming that the system actually delivers what voters want is kind of stupid. First off, this article argues that politics distances voters from accountability; we can claim “but we never personally authorized the slaughter of innocents” and piously wash our hands of responsibility.

    Second, in reality, the political machinery has long been independent of the voters anyway. Any halfway-responsible political pundit knows about “rational apathy” – it is pointless to waste time becoming fully informed because your influence on the political outcome is minuscule, and you know it.

    Likewise, the advantage of special interests over taxpayers is indisputable – people lobby hard for benefits which are worth thousands or millions to them personally, but the costs are distributed widely, so few people lobby to object to the 25 cents or 5 dollars worth of costs which are the flip side of that same benefit.

    Americans are catching on. The number who are very dissatisfied with the government, even distrustful of the government, is very high – 4 out of 5, according to a recent Pew Research poll. Pew is far from being a “right wing extremist antigovernment” organ, so perhaps it’s time to remove your “government is wonderful” glasses and ask what is really happening in the real world.

  • Dre

    I agree that principle agent problems do exist, but then this gets a little far fetched.

    Through the magic of evolutionary psychology (I presume) the subconscious has created a system in which the subconscious can get what it wants while allowing the conscious to pretend that it wants other things, all while the conscious doesn’t notice.

    That just sounds really complicated where a simpler explanation would do fine.

  • J

    The two problems I have criticizing people for hypocrisy:

    1. It’s normal, natural human behavior. Accusing someone of hypocrisy is like accusing them of breathing.

    2. You can be a hypocrite and still be right.

    There’s also the misuse of the term. In the immortal words of (I think) Laura Schlessinger, do as I say not as I do is hypocrisy; do as I say not as I did is the voice of experience.

    “Surely you can’t be blamed when wannabe immigrants bodies pile up in the desert”

    How is this ever the fault of anyone other than the “wannabe” (are you uncomfortable saying “illegal?) immigrants?

    “when your troops slaughter foreigners in their streets”

    Guess I’d need a specific example, but in most of the cases I can recall, the majority of the population doesn’t claim to have a problem with this except in rare circumstances.

    “when police use brutal street justice to keep your peace”

    Again, with some exceptions the public generally doesn’t claim to have a problem with this sort of thing, though we might be talking about different issues. Could you give an example of “brutal street justice”?

  • bgreen

    interesting issue and very readable comments.

    Is agency a cowardice issue? by hiding behind another and in turn the agent hiding behind their electorate all becomes anonymous. there is a strong spirit of demanding authority whilst shirking responsibility. J R Saul termed this a technocrat.

    which leads me to the point about voters lack of knowledge. smart people have shown little ability to navigate safely on our behalf (except in respect to their own careers), is ignorance likely to cost more?

  • Robert, yes politicians get to be hypocritical as well.
    Bill, yes secret ballots give another excuse.
    Dre, you explained the idea quickly and easily; how is it complicated?

  • Pingback: In Mala Fide()

  • Patri Friedman

    Some of the commenters seem to think that Robin is positing a broad conspiracy. All I saw was him arguing that democracy serves a particular hidden agenda in a way which others haven’t pointed out much before. That the very defect which public choice theorists point to (rational ignorance) may be extremely appealing given the particular human desire for signaling values.

    It seems obvious that a mechanism which appeals to people in some way is more likely to come into being and survive than one which doesn’t. I don’t think Robin is claiming this is any kind of complete explanation for the existence or popularity of democracy, merely one novel factor. And one which presumably pleases his subconscious by nicely signaling his cynical rationality, which is a core value of his tribe :).

  • Pingback: A thought on why politics is fundamentally dysfunctional()

  • Pingback: My Official Spokesperson by Marcus Geduld - Quora()

  • Pingback: A thought on why politics is fundamentally dysfunctional | The Thinker()

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : How To Vote()

  • Miguel Lahunken

    No! Secrecy supports hypocrisy; and, it’s not democracy to have the secretive privileged elite we have corrupting everything:
    Hypocritical society thrives on secrecy. Here’s an example of suppressed knowledge. Spread the most classic secret, the supreme grand secret of the “lodge”, which,
    thanks to modern medicine, can be printed on a bumper sticker:
    VAGAL STIMULATION IS AS EFFECTIVE AS LSD. Behind the old “Iron Curtain”
    there was a disease recognized that is
    deceitfully diagnosed to be schizophrenia in the West. It was called “shamans’
    disease” and is caused by scar tissue in the parasympathetic (muscarinic)
    nervous system. This nervous system is called “muscarinic” after the hallucinogenic drug
    muscarine, found in the fly aminita mushroom; and, muscarine doesn’t cross the
    blood brain barrier. It works by exciting the whole muscarinic nervous system
    and thereby overriding the inhibitory neurons in the brain. But, it is unpopular
    in the West due to the way it excites the digestive system.
    This has been kept secret by those who cash in on this secrecy, occult
    secrecy. In yoga, the plexuses of the muscarinic nervous system are called
    chakras, presented to the common people as “spiritual wheels of light along the
    spine”, but they are not in the spine, they are the major plexuses of the
    parasympathetic nervous system in the body.
    This muscarinic nervous system stimulation is called “kundalini” in yoga,
    and when yoga students reach the degree where they are allowed to know the truth
    about their own bodies they must sign contracts of secrecy.
    So, your children may have only acquired scar tissue in their
    parasympathetic nervous systems, which can be treated medically other ways, but,
    there are dopamine blockers to be sold, and, special interests want to keep
    their profitable secrets.
    Of course one international organization is behind this, a well known
    secret society, whose “temple” represents the human body, and whose “holy of
    holies” represents where the largest muscarinic nerve, the vagus nerve, emerges
    from the brain into the body in the nasopharynx.
    LSD used to be used to carry out a horrible treatment called the
    “Clockwork Orange” treatment. Here the victim has over 50% of the brain awakened
    consciously for use. It is called by “Grof Transpersonal”, “perinatal matrix three”, and
    here the victim experiences all the sufferings of people shown in a film by
    going backward and forward in time to inhabit each and every body shown,
    experiencing their torments as real as life.
    Today this is being done by exciting the parasympathetic nervous system by
    “waterboarding”. It was mentioned in an article about this, in a popular news magazine,
    that “efforts were made to have the water irritate the nasopharynx”, where the main trunk of the
    vagus nerve emerges from the brain, proceeding down into the body.
    Crucifixion also causes so much muscarinic nervous system stimulation that
    the victim will body switch into everyone he knows. God knows everyone, so it is
    known that Jesus Christ is in you and I and everyone this way.
    When a “schizophrenic” patient has more that 50% of the brain consciously
    awakened (it shows on an MRI) they are catatonic, but they are out body switching
    into everyone and every character they have seen, even in every movie they ever saw. Less severe
    schizophrenic symptoms occur with brain use percentages less than 50%.
    The solution, to establish better treatment for our children, and fellow man, is to spread
    this knowledge to common public knowledge.

    Reply, Reply All or Forward | More