Political Life's Mysteries

By Sean Carroll | October 21, 2009 4:02 pm

My personal blog-reading strategy is to cycle around, subscribing to any individual blog for a while in my newsreader and then dropping it after a while. You can’t read everything. So I used to read Matthew Yglesias, but haven’t been recently. I clearly need to start again, because this (via Brad DeLong) is extremely smart and powerful.

I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree of cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

It is kind of a mystery. Why is it a heinous crime for one individual to act directly against another, but business as usual for a powerful politician to act knowingly in ways that will bring harm to the nation or the world? Is it just that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic?

  • Random Reader

    No offense, but this is not very deep, and in fact the stabbing comaprison is weak and logically flawed. Extremely smart? You must be easily impressed (and yes, I do believe global warming is a problem).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I was wondering how long it would take to get the first comment saying “No it’s not smart” without giving any argument. Thirteen minutes, hmm. Must be slipping.

  • strategichamlet

    I also think this is false comparison. What a legislator should do in a representative democracy when their personal beliefs conflict with the majority stance of their constituents is a a much more complex issue than whether to stab someone for personal gain. I will say, though, that words like “leader” or “leadership” are a hollow joke when referring to people who vote with the political winds.

  • u. saldin

    Well, tons of tomes have been written on this and the many related issues. Suffice it to say that people can and do easily delude themselves.

  • Simplicio

    Agree with others. It’s a pretty poor comparison. It’s at least arguable that a senator shouldn’t vote against a strong majority of his constiuants, not only for his personal election chances but because he’s supposed to be their representitive. I don’t think anyone would argue that stabbing a hobo is ethical, though.

    Plus, I doubt the DC homeless population has very good footware. If your going to murder for shoes, wouldn’t you kill someone a little more well-to-do.

  • Random Reader

    Well, I can’t personally be slipping, as I am not a regular poster (unless two posts make me a regular). Anyway, you might want to notice that you call it “extremely smart” without giving much of an argument as well. Your blog, your opinion, my comment, my opinion (how do you propose to objectively measure an IQ of a blog post?) But the stabbing comparison is weak and false, and was only made for its shock value.

    I was also going to add something about the expectation value of shoes of a homeless person, but #5 beat me to it.

  • onymous

    Wait, really? Almost all the commenters here so far want to argue that a congressperson should do whatever gets them re-elected, because that is what their constituents want, even if it’s clearly immoral? Huh. That’s… um… huh.

  • onymous

    We could patch up the analogy people find problematic by saying that the congressperson has been specifically sent into the alley to stab the homeless person by a large group of residents from their hometown, who are standing at the end of the alley and cheering. It’s at least arguable that, having been elected to do this task by these people, the congressperson should do it, independent of its morality, right, #5?

  • Chris

    Perhaps the best analogy would be that elected representative voting for legislation that will have people directly killed (to make it even less controversial, we’ll say outside of a war or cases of convicted murderers or rapists) vs. not voting for legislation that would save lives. Imagine that in both cases he or she was doing so for reasons of political expediency. Now at least we’ve got the classic action vs. inaction distinction, and a fairly straightforward comparison.

    But even with that comparison, when you factor in constituency, representative democracy, rule of law (and the Constitution), etc., a whole host of thorny and complicating issues get raised. Yglesias’ point is well taken, if hardly original, and he was clearly using the analogy for rhetorical purposes, but a “smart” post would at least try to suss out some of the factors involved.

  • Michael T.

    Follow the money…I know, its kinda cynical but I’m not a Senator either.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Basic psychology does need to be considered, as suggested. Murdering a person with your bare hands is indeed much more difficult than, say, giving an order to drop a nuclear bomb on a city. The indirectness, the lack of ability to appreciate the magnitude of large numbers (we tend to imagine quantities on a log scale, apparently). Moreover, in this case, there’s nothing like a direct cause-effect path to assign blame, and huge numbers of potential culprits between the legislator and the victims.

    I agree there’s an irony here, but not much of a comparison.

  • Tom

    The analogy could also be improved by noting that this is much like a firing squad… as an elected official, I am but one vote case to pass some legislation. In the end, which elected official pulled the trigger?

  • Analyzer

    It goes almost without saying that Sean and Matthew’s take on this is amusingly simplistic and short-sighted. The discussion should move past that.

  • democrat

    The analogy is truly terrible.

    Focusing on the “self-interest” of Senators is inappropriate and highly misleading here. A Senator effectively has a contract to represent the desires of the population that elected him or her, and the promise of continued employment exists as an incentive for the Senator to honor that contract. If e.g. climate change is such a problem that the ordinary interests of the voters need to be sacrificed, then that’s a decision that the voters need to make themselves. (At least if you believe in democracy.)

  • mary

    Another important point to keep in mind about politics…sometimes winning an election at all costs is not necessarily at odds with trying to do the right thing.

    For example if you want to give people universal healthcare (a good thing) you have to first win an election that gives you the power to do so. Winning this election may require you to lie, bribe, make deals with companies to raise money for your campaign etc…only so that ultimately you can win the election and help poor people by giving them medical care (a good thing).

    Politics is VERY COMPLICATED and it is naive to think of it simply in terms of right and wrong. It’s no place for boy scouts. Have to disagree with this post…the analogy to murder is poor indeed.

  • Gary

    Mary makes the best case for AGW and the best argument why AGW is bunk all in the same post.

  • Andrew

    Can anyone here tell me what the best and worst case scenarios, as predicted by the leading academics, for global warming is at the moment? I keep hearing reports that the negative effects are continually being reduced based on models of the next 100 to 150 years or so… is that even somewhat reliable? I would love a good list of science articles to read to really solidify my understanding of what the current state of thought is from the climate change circles. If anyone can supply me with that list then thanks in advance!

  • gopher65

    @ onymous #8:

    It is immoral in the extreme for a politician to act against the wishes of their constituents. They are elected for one solo purpose: to do the will of those who elected them. Their personal morals and ethics should have nothing to do with it.

    I’m reminded of a previous Canadian prime minister who pushed through legislation to legalize gay marriage even though he himself was strongly opposed to it (he was a devote, practising Catholic). He was opposed, but those who elected him weren’t. His personal opinion on the matter was irrelevant.

    That’s how a representative democracy should work, but that’s not usually how it does work. In practise the personal morals and goals of the politician all too often interfere with their purpose for existence (service of the public).

    So yes, if a congressman was informed by a significant majority of his constituents that he was to murder homeless people, he would *have* to do it, because he is nothing more than an agent of his constituents. In the context of his job he is not a person, he is merely a machine, there to do our will…. assuming that he is functioning within normal parameters, anyway;).

    One caveat: politicians are very rarely presented with a situation where a strong majority of the population is in perfect agreement. Normally it’s something like a 40/40/20 opinion split. In those situations it is appropriate for the politician to look at all major opinions held by the population he serves, and then decide between them, using his own judgment. That is, however, the only situation (albeit a common situation) where a politician’s personal experience and opinions should way into making a decision.

  • onymous

    I’m reminded of a previous Canadian prime minister who pushed through legislation to legalize gay marriage even though he himself was strongly opposed to it (he was a devote, practising Catholic). He was opposed, but those who elected him weren’t. His personal opinion on the matter was irrelevant.

    Give me a break. Flip that around: suppose his constituents opposed gay marriage, and he supported it. If he does what his constituents want him to do, he’s acting immorally; it’s simply true that supporting gay marriage rights is the right thing to do, morally, whether you’re a politician or not. If a Southern politician in the ’60s opposed civil rights legislation because his constituents wanted him to, he was acting immorally. The same goes for climate change now. If the constituents are in the wrong, it gives a politician an excuse to do the wrong thing, but it doesn’t make it right. Indeed, a moral politician should be compelled to act against their constituents in such a case. The constituents have every right to vote them out of office in the next election, which is the price that one pays for acting morally if the public is opposed. It’s still the right thing to do. And this is Yglesias’s point: politicians are choosing to forego acting morally in order to give in to the public (at times, with a small fraction of the public), to avoid attacks that could cost them their re-election.

    I guess I’m not enough of a moral relativist for the crowd here. Failing to act on climate change is just wrong; it’s very black-and-white. (The morality of specific types of actions to mitigate the problem is a lot trickier, as all sorts of things we do are complicit in various ways. But avoiding addressing the problem altogether, or denying that it exists? Unambiguously wrong.)

  • jick

    Search keyword: “monkeysphere.” I found it very funny and rather insightful.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    First, delete comment #20. Second, what is the job of an elected representative: to vote for
    what he thinks is best, to vote for what the majority of those who elected him voted for,
    or to vote for what he thinks is best for those who voted for him? Politics is complicated; be
    glad you do only physics. It’s no mistake that Newton wrote the Principia first THEN became
    Master of the Mint.

  • mary

    @ onymous :

    If you are a politician who cares deeply about global warming, then it is extremely important for you to remain in power so that you can take important steps to fight global warming. If you lose relection it hurts the cause of global warming. Staying in power may require you to make some deals or comprises with the opposition…it’s called losing the battle to win the war.

    For example, you may make a deal with a senator that ultimately helps a certain oil company in exchange for his vote on far more important legislation to cut down on emissions from coal plants, factories, etc and imposes higher mileage standards. This may appear unethical to the “boy scouts” out there but is extremely necessary…it’s called politics!

  • improbable

    The senator’s job is to vote the way his constituents would vote, if they were present, and had time to read the bill, etc. That it is also in his self-interest to do so is good, this means his job has well-alligned incentives.

    The only exception to this I can see is for atrocities. The soldier’s job is to take orders, but we also expect him occasionally to refuse, when asked to partake in a massacre for instance. But it’s got to be pretty blatant before this kicks in, working to prop up a dodgy regime which impoverishes its people does not count, you have to be physically present at the genocide.

    “onymous” seems to believe that gay marriage and climate change are issues of this magnitude, for which “just taking orders” would not be a defence for voting against his preferences (and mine!). I think this is crazy, these things are fairly normal issues. They are not so large that we should abandon democracy.

    Of course the senator has the option of trying to educate his people, to explain why his view is correct. He also has the option of resigning, should he find the votes which it is his job to cast so at odds with his own views. (However the voters are likely to have already picked someone whose views are fairly close to theirs, on most issues.)

  • yotta

    Yes, the evil dictator must have had the inside scoop…

    The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.
    Joseph Stalin

    A sincere diplomat is like dry water or wooden iron.
    Joseph Stalin

    Come election time, all politicians are diplomats.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Remembering the first George W. Bush election, I’m reminded of another Stalin quote:
    The people who vote decide nothing; the people who count the votes decide everything.

    Let’s ignore the two-party system which means that the majority of the people WHO VOTED
    (if you don’t vote, you can’t complain) didn’t get whom they wanted. If the U.S. can’t go to
    proportional representation, at least instant-runoff or something similar should be used to
    avoid situations where Gore and Nader together had more than Bush, and probably all
    Nader voters would have preferred Gore to Bush, but Bush won. The practical consequence
    is that third-party candidates should not split the vote, leaving the playing field to just two
    parties. (A two-party system is only marginally better than a one-party system.) But let’s
    ignore even this atrocity. Get this: Gore has more of the popular vote, undisputedly.
    Ignore even this atrocity as well and for the purposes of argument say the Electoral-College
    system is fair. The votes are unclear, because of badly constructed voting machines. So
    there is a recount. The recount is stopped when Bush is ahead by the Governor of Florida,
    who is his brother. Even in a banana republic, politicians wouldn’t stoop this low, and even
    there if they did they couldn’t get away with it.

    Stalin is also a good example of good PR. Most people think of Hitler as more evil, but Stalin
    killed TEN TIMES as many people. (I don’t think evil can be quantified in terms of the
    number of people someone kills; the two are in some sense equally evil in my eyes.) And
    while we’re on the subject of genocide, when asked if he thought he could get away with
    the Holocaust, Hitler replied “Who remembers the Armenians?” Even today, the western
    world still lays out the red carpet for the “strategic partner” Turkey, with the US
    lobbying the EU to admit Turkey (a long-time NATO member, though last time I looked
    it wasn’t near the North Atlantic), while within Turkey, even mentioning the Armenian
    genocide will get you in jail.

  • RA

    The elected representatives do not necessarily have to vote as their constituents would. What happens when there is a very complicated issue up for vote and his constituents are divided? Should he/she split the vote?

    Representative democracy works like this: you elect the ‘best’ person to represent your broad interests and hope that this person, once elected, makes the best decisions for the benefit of the entire population represented, even if some of them may not have voted for him/her.

    Now, in practice, individual constituents do not have as much influence as the corporations that spend enormous amounts of money to influence politicians to do their bidding. Look at what is happening with health care: the majority of the US population agrees that health care is a problem and that something has to be done. However, the greatest obstacle seems to be the enormous economic interests of very powerful corporations that want to keep things as they are. The greater good is being trumped by the benefit to a small segment of the population.

    I come from a third world country and my impression is this: here in the US there is perhaps as much corruption as where I come from. Here, however, things are more ‘complicated’ and thus the fact that a few groups can have much more say than the general population when it comes to the way a politician votes is not corruption at all, it is just how things work in ‘politics’.

  • rww

    It’s a case of a million being a statistic.

    How many millions of human beings has the US killed since the end of WWII? How many millions of civilians? None of it in “self-defense”. We roam the world at will committing mass slaughter and nobody (domestic) cares.

  • Gadfly

    rww — you, sir, are an idiot.

  • Arrow

    I agree that the comparison is very naive and that the primary duty of representatives is to represent their constituents.

  • rww

    Gadfly, why?

  • rww

    Here, Gadfly, 400,000 from Agent Orange alone in Vietnam. 500,000 children with birth defects.


  • karsus

    Although it derails the topic Rww’s last post is a statistic.

  • Kevin

    The problem with most democracies is that, rather than electing the people who would best serve as legislators, governors, etc., we elect the people who are best _at getting elected_.

    To quote Churchill:
    “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

  • Scott B

    Do you think a politician is responsible for their entire nation or world? In our country, the only people that matter to the politician are the people who vote for or against him. So a Senator is only answerable to the people in his state. A Representative responsible for his district. Even if one takes the ever changing IPCC projections at face value (I personally don’t, but that doesn’t matter here), it’s possible that controls on CO2 emissions would harm more of his constituents than help. To take it a step further, do you think a politician should vote by his own beliefs or on the beliefs of his constituents? Our system forces politicians to lean toward acting in agreement with his constituents.

    Another issue to consider is, are we all responsible for everyone else? I don’t really think so. Our society and financial system sure isn’t based on that concept. It’s wrong for me to steal money from another person. That’s a direct action against them. What if that person is rich and I give it to a homeless person on the street? Is it wrong for me to vote to increase taxes? That’s still taking money from certain people. That’s an indirect action though. Is it wrong for me to take someone’s money at a poker game? There it’s a direct action, but the person on the other side was a willing participant in it. There’s no right or wrong answer here. Everyone’s got their own beliefs and will answer those questions differently.

  • Roman

    Didn’t I read somewhere that Founding Fathers anticipated this close attachment of representatives to their constituency and imagined senators to be somewhat above that?

  • Scott B

    Roman: I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. Ideals are good and all, but they will give way to the practicallity of keeping one’s job. That’s why checks and balances have to be built into the system. The check here is that the people get to vote for politician. The only way ideals will matter is if a politician’s contituents hold him to those ideals. It seems that nowadays, most people just vote for their political party or whomever’s name they see on TV the most. These are flaws we have to live with in our political system. At least it is the peoples’ failure when the system becomes corrupt rather than an specific individual or powerful group.

  • Joe

    Psychologically, the answer is easy. Guilt is diffused over tons of people. This behavior is expected. And Senators won’t admit the necessary part – that they believe its a true problem.

    Yglesias has a completely appropriate analogy. The argument that’s bubbling up is simply that he has a higher moral calling – representing his constituents. The problem is that our system of government is set up with the opposite intent – that the leaders would make an independent judgment on what is good for the country.

    That’s why there is no national referendum system. That’s why there is a minimum Congressional district size but not a maximum. That’s why we indirectly elect the President (initially, electors were supposed to be that you voted for the smartest guy you knew, and let him decide who to cast your electoral vote for), and why the founders had us indirectly elect Senators.

    Or to put it in modern context – especially for the Republicans in the crowd – if representatives are supposed to vote our preferences instead of their own, why did the flip-flop charge stick against Kerry? After all, changing his vote when it is politically convenient would be an advantage if he was a representative.

  • Paul

    I don’t normally think of Edmund Burke as a political soulmate, but his famous remarks to the electors of Bristol seem appropriately nuanced here:

    “…it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

  • spyder

    Focusing on the “self-interest” of Senators is inappropriate and highly misleading here. A Senator effectively has a contract to represent the desires of the population that elected him or her, and the promise of continued employment exists as an incentive for the Senator to honor that contract.

    So a Senator is only answerable to the people in his state.So a Senator is only answerable to the people in his state.
    The senator’s job is to vote the way his constituents would vote, if they were present, and had time to read the bill, etc..

    For the record: Senators do not, have not, and will not, represent people. They represent their states, solely in the interest of other states, as a means to create a measure of justice in the exercise of legislative power between those states with large populations and those with much smaller ones. Thus the reason there are two Senators from every state. Now, a US Senator is a very powerful human being in the scale of world political power. One would hope (wishful thinking) that Senators actually assumed the mantle of the role to which they aspired. This is not the case; as the costs of campaigns increase, the 100 Senators become more beholden to the specific interests of those who fund their campaigns. Only a very few people actually have the requisite disposable wealth to do so, and thus receive the full attention of each Senator.

    Suppose, for example you are from Texas, which houses the international headquarters of the oil industry. One can be pretty damn sure (check out Opensource.org if you doubt) that Texas Senators represent what is best for oil and energy, no matter what that may mean to the citizens of the State.

    That’s why there is a minimum Congressional district size but not a maximum.
    Actually it is the other way around. The US Census determines a total number of citizens in the US, which is divided by 435 (not including the exception of those territories whose constituent populations receive non-voting representation in Congress). The outcome of that number is the “size of districts” given the norm, which is subtracted by the number of states that have less than that number of citizens per district {norm} (thus the minimum district size equals the number of citizens within each state that fall below the original quotient), and the remaining sum is then again divided by the remaining number of available representatives. That determines the total number of representatives by number of states allotted. Congress then sets the apportionment for number of districts across the states that dramatically exceed the quotient of the second equation. Because of the Constitutionally mandated limit of 435 voting representatives, some states (such as CA) will have much higher number of people per district than other states with lower populations.

    This why the next 2010 election is so damned important at the state level, in that it determines the legislative bent along the political spectrum as to who gets to define the gerrymandering of those precious Congressional districts. Once Congress notifies the states as to how many representatives they will have in the 2012 Congress, the states have about a year to redesign and realign the districts according to the wishes of the controlling political party.

    And you thought physics was complicated.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    I thought the dynamics behind democratic politics is very clear: the first rule is survival. You won’t get a chance to influence major legislation or to vote on it, unless you first get elected and then re-elected. The making of good but unpopular policy must fit in within this constraint.

    I think Obama touched upon this theme in his “The Audacity of Hope”.

  • chris

    well, that’s democracy for you. i am always baffled by the common misconception that elected representatives should do anything else than just representing the wish of people who elected them. and if it is the will of these people to act stupidly, then it is the obligation of their representative to do so for them. case closed.

  • Arrow

    Obviously there are different opinions on what the job of representatives is about. Are there any laws which explicitly define such matters?

  • Joe


    “That’s why there is a minimum Congressional district size but not a maximum.
    Actually it is the other way around. The US Census determines a total number of citizens in the US,”


    You misunderstand me. Congress’ size is determined by law Congress can change. That doesn’t really reflect on whether they should vote their conscience or the people’s will. My point was that the Constitution sets a minimum district size (no smaller than 30,000 people) but not a maximum size. The reason was to increase the independence of the representative from the people, so that he could vote his will.


    No, there is no explicit definition.

  • spyder

    Yes Joe… i did get that. My point was that the states with the least population are still entitled to a single representative regardless of the size of their population (even if, for some reason, Rhode Islands population were to drop below 30k). We elect our representatives ostensibly to REPRESENT our views, not their own, as citizens of the district, within a state, from which they were elected. We fail ourselves and our democracy if we don’t hold them accountable for that responsibility; they are public servants not leaders. That those issues have been muddled and confused to the point of you having to ask your question speaks volumes about the failure of this nation to uphold its precepts. If a representative feels the need to “vote their conscience” rather than represent the will of the people by whom s/he were elected, then it behooves them to come to their district and explain that directly. Failing to do so is an abdication of their responsibilities. We, the people, need to make greater concerted efforts to hold our public servants more accountable for their actions.

    Maybe we should pass a Constitutional Amendment that changes the name from the House of Representatives to the House of Masters????

  • steeleweed

    Killing one person is murder. Killing millions is politics-as-usual.
    Came across a comment once regarding the holocaust to the effect that it wasn’t about 6 million being killed – it was about murder being committed 6 million times.

    Quite frankly, I don’t think politicians are that much different from the average person.
    We’re all likely to behave differently when it’s our ox being gored.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “Obviously there are different opinions on what the job of representatives is about. Are there any laws which explicitly define such matters?!”

    I don’t know about the US, but in Germany, the constitution states that a member of
    Parliament has his conscience as the SOLE arbiter on how to vote. That is, of the three
    choices (what the representative prefers, what the majority of those who voted for him
    prefer, what would be best for the majority of those who elected him), one is singled out as
    the SOLE determinant of how a representative should vote.

    I don’t agree with that. It’s a typical case of a law which was well meant when it was
    written, but isn’t a good choice today. One rarely knows one’s representative personally. As
    the name says, a representative’s job is to represent. Just because he got elected doesn’t
    mean he should be able to do what he wants; he has a job. (A strict interpretation of the
    rule could be that a representative could vote opposite to what he promised during the
    campaign, or randomly, or by listening to Sean Carroll—anything he can justify as
    “dictated by his conscience”.) The obvious choice is that a representative should vote for
    what the majority of those who elected him would vote for. In general, I think this is true,
    but one of the reasons we have representatives, and indeed division of labour generally,
    is that the issues are often complex. I would prefer to vote for someone I trust (whether or
    not I know him personally) and hope that he acts in my best interests, even if it might be
    contrary to what I would personally choose on the spur of the moment (perhaps not knowing
    the complexity of the issues involved). When the representative feels that A is best for
    those who voted for him, but knows that most of those would vote for B, he should explain
    why A is better than B.

    This conjures up the image of a representative as someone who votes according to some
    algorithm. In practice, few representatives will often vote against their own beliefs, since
    even if they see themselves as true representatives, part of politics is arguing for a certain
    point of view, and this is difficult if one doesn’t in fact hold that point of view.

    In practice, in Germany (and presumably in many other countries, but probably not in
    two-party systems where the role of the party is minimal), representatives vote according
    to the position of the party (which I agree with, since I voted for a party, and not for
    someone I don’t even know personally), from their point of view because they know that if
    they adopt the “I vote solely according to my conscience” stance the party will not choose
    them as a candidate in the next election. Only in exceptional cases, when there is no clear
    party position and/or where the division in opinion cuts across party lines, do the parties
    formally say “vote your conscience”.

  • Brian Too

    I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I have to stand up (a little) for the politicians on this one.

    To suggest that there are clear-cut moral stands on every, or even most issues, is probably not right. It’s possible to agree on principle and disagree on process, or timing, or priorities. There are different cost-benefit equations at work all the time. That’s the first thing.

    The second matter is the question of who owns policy: The voters or the politicians? Yeah, sure, at election time it’s clearly the voters, but then there’s all that time between those elections.

    There are 2 views of management theory and they both have some merit. One is that you hire the manager (politician) based upon their knowledge and judgement and you trust them to make decisions based upon that (wisdom). You take the good with the bad on this one because sometimes that manager is going to disagree with you. However I believe that textbook management theory generally says this is the better management technique.

    The other theory is that you hire a manager to directly represent you. They do not make policy, they implement it. In this system if a policy mistake is made you should logically own that mistake, not the manager. Textbook management theory generally frowns on this system because it’s something of a micromanagement environment. However some organizations successfully implement this system.

    I have heard several posters here claim that representing their constituents wishes is the politician’s sole duty, but do we really want that? Are we sure we know what the voters wishes are on every issue? We can measure it to be sure but then we risk becoming a poll-driven society and there are lots of people who decry that as a failure of backbone and spirit.

    I’d suggest that a “responsible cynicism” might be arrived at if you detected flip-flopping between the two different management systems, with no apparent goal except achieving personal gains.

    My concern is that most citizens who are cynical don’t care how policy they don’t agree with was arrived at. They disagree with the policy and get jaded with all politicians. Under these circumstances, who is the greater negative force, the political class or the citizens? Who was it who said that the people get the government they deserve?

    There’s a real problem with the political world I think, and that’s the notion that literally everything is negotiable. I suspect that most people would like to have a politician with some center, some stable core that is not negotiable. Yet if that belief system is too “large” then you’ll have an inflexible leader who may refuse deals that would benefit themselves and their constituents. And I suspect that a political animal for whom everything is negotiable, can have a long and fruitful career, bending to every wind of change that comes along.

  • Christina Viering



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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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