You Don’t Rule The World

In far mode we emphasize basic values a lot more, relative to practical constraints; in near mode we do the opposite. … This certainly fits my more detailed opinions on large scale policy and the future. You have to pay attention to an awful lot of detail in order to figure out which policies are best, or what is likely to actually happen in the distant future. But most people seem to quickly form opinions on such topics using simple value associations. When they can identify a clear value association, people seem pretty willing to form opinions, which seems to me a vastly overconfident attitude. (more)

When people talk about larger social scales, like nations or the world, or when they talk about long time scales, they prefer to talk values, not practical facts and constraints. One might argue that people neglect physical and organizational constraints because they don’t understand such things well. But people also tend to ignore political constraints, which they usually say that they understand pretty well.

That is, people tend to show a lot of interest in tracking the various political coalitions, and their varying power and preferences. But people show far less interest in working out what sort of political compromises might be feasible and desirable. Instead, people usually prefer to talk about what they’d do if they personally ruled the world, if their nation ruled the world, or if their favored coalition ruled the world or their nation.

Yes, figuring out what you personally want can sometimes be a useful first step. You might then reevaluate what coalitions to support, and then focus on which possible political comprises and deals you’d be most interested in helping to promote. But people rarely go beyond that first step — talking about what they personally want. And people are usually rather reluctant, even hostile, to discussing specific compromises proposed by others.

The obvious interpretation here is that politics isn’t about policy. While people talk as if they care about outcomes and want to discuss big issues in order to influence outcomes, what they really want is to declare and express values. Expressing values helps them to signal loyalty to like-minded folks, and a commitment to norms their community holds dear. Discussing compromise, in contrast, risks your seeming a traitor to your allies, and lacking firm value principles.

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  • Ben

    There are a number of recurring themes in your blog posts – have you considered writing them up into neat, long-for essays? Like one long post that compiles the arguments and evidence that ‘Politics isn’t about Policy’?

  • Lord

    It may be more a Venus and Mars situation here in which you understand like minded people fairly well, and unlike minded people little, the latter leading to assertions if one side supports something, the other must be against it, or argue in terms of what is important to you assuming commonality that isn’t there, or using a few stylized values that they may favor but without knowing whether they would be persuaded or value sufficiently to compromise others or what those others are worth to them. Not just a difference in values, but knowledge as to their relative importance or what respects them. This would explain so many of the bad arguments I constantly hear.


    Most of the time people complain about policy like they complain about the weather, and for the same reasons too: to let off steam or to have something to talk about at all. Still, yeah, there’s plenty of people for whom it’s true that policy is about signalling values (sometimes not even political values but stuff like “see, I care a lot, I’m not selfish, I have all these cliché talking points that 80 percent of people won’t see through and I hope you’re part of that 80 percent”).

  • chaosmosis

    Politics is about policy. It’s just not optimally targeted on that subject, because human beings are not perfect. Having people discuss the hypothetical policies they’d do if they ruled the world is much more about policy than other potential conversation topics are. If people were optimizing for status, as you imply, they would not talk about politics so often.

    There are reasons for talking mostly about goals that you fail to consider. For one thing, talking about negotiating strategies in public is a bad idea for anyone who seriously cares about what they’re trying to achieve. For another, it’s difficult to talk about negotiation when you’re without actual power, and unable to communicate with relevant actors. Negotiation isn’t a subject that can be discussed so much as a process that must be enacted. There are generalizations that can be made about negotiation, but they’re often rather broad and shallow ones, they’ll never tell you in detail what to do.

    As I don’t work in politics, it’s difficult for me to articulate this next point, but I additionally suspect you’re somewhat trivializing the importance of social ties and social signalling in achieving successful negotiations. When people talk about goals and try to make friends/allies, that is not something separate from negotiation but a part of the overall process. It’s only when people’s goals diverge that negotiation can even be discussed in detail, and learning the details of other people’s various goals can be quite useful. Debating with people about goals is crucial if you want to understand and negotiate with them.

    There are distortions, of course. But to say “politics is not about policy” is hyperbole.

  • Stephen Diamond

    I think politics is (largely) about rehearsing personal values–rather than merely signaling them. (See A habit theory of civil morality )

  • Graham Peterson

    Correct. Politics is mostly about signaling values through symbolic interaction and there are much better ways to do that than constantly threatening your audience with force. To wit, there are better places to argue than the senate.

    • IMASBA

      “To wit, there are better places to argue than the senate.”

      Actual policy is mostly discussed in congressional (or parliamentary, depending on your country) committees, cabinet meetings and the offices of high ranking civil servants. That doesn’t mean public debates are useless: you need a lot of theater and value signalling to make sure millions of people keep paying their taxes and see themselves as citizens of your nation. It would actually be a bad thing if politics were entirely about policy, though that doesn’t mean a little more policy and a little less signalling would be bad at this point.

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  • arch1

    This is more a comment on the referenced posting: It seems to me that the near/far difference (in weighting of values vs. practicality) is due in significant part to: 1) aggressive discounting of future utility (“early to rise” is a great value, but the payoff is long term; whereas hitting that snooze button pays off now), 2) the sheer difficulty of grappling with the complexities of far-mode practical constraints.

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