In large polities, the main function of our politics in our lives is how it influences the way others see us; its influence on us via policy is far weaker. But it looks bad to admit we do politics to selfishly show off, instead of to help society make better policy. So we are built to instead talk, and think, as if we do politics for its influence on policy; we are build to be self-deceived about how politics matters to us.
Our ancestors argued beliefs and negotiated actions in groups ranging from size two to a hundred. No doubt they evolved to adapt their behavior to the size of the group, at least within this range. And for the largest groups, the main payoffs from their arguing and negotiating behavior was not via influencing the resulting group beliefs and actions, but from how their words and deeds influenced how others thought of them. This is all the more true for modern group sizes, and I suspect our strategies are adaptive enough to emphasize impression management even more for larger groups.
So not only are our behaviors adapted to the wrong size group, but they are mainly about signaling and achieving status within the group, not actually accomplishing change. After all, increasing status gives a private gain, while improving policy helps the whole tribe, and selfish genes are focused on private gains. Makes sense – no wonder activism is difficult!
Which suggests that we should try to give status to those with the greatest achievements, so that status-seeking selfishness results in gains for all. We’re pretty good at doing this in some spheres – idolizing the champions of charity, but terrible at it in others – taxing, mocking, and demonizing success at business, even though entrepreneurs capture but a small fraction of the wealth they create. I think libertarians are pretty bad at this – we tend to grant recognition and status to speakers and thinkers based on their passion and eloquence in the cause of liberty (signaling their role as members and potential leaders of our tribe), as opposed to actual effects at increasing it.
If we actually want freedom, as opposed to wanting membership in a tribe with passionate and eloquent leaders, perhaps we should change our standards.