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Rendering Partisanship Irrelevant

July 23, 2009

We are all assuming the motives of other people, all the time. It’s the definition of empathy. And, for the most part, humans are quite skilled at analyzing the motives of human beings in social situations and economic transactions.

It’s good that we are able to do this, otherwise we’d have almost no ability to function socially. Correctly diagnosing the motives behind people’s actions is key to understanding how they willl behave in the future. If someone punches you in the face after you insult their mother, incorrectly diagnosing their motive for doing so, and proceeding to insult their mother again, leads to obvious problems.

But as good as we are at assessing people’s motives in the social and economic realms, we are absolutely awful at doing it in the political realm.

How many times have you heard a pro-choice liberal deride a conservative as “hating women?” (I recently did this – certainly not my best moment.) On the converse, how many times have you heard conservatives deride liberals as “hating America?” It might be satisfying to think that your political opponents are also people intentionally trying to destroy everything good and true in the world, but there is no necessary correlation between what we find satisfying and the truth.

The real truth is that nearly everyone thinks that their set of policy prescriptions will lead to a better society. Very few people are tangibly selfish about their political ends. Even Henry Paulson and crew probably believe that the bailout pattern they supported was the best for the economy. And yet the presumption of selfishness is inherent in political discourse.

It’s important to understand why we find such thoughts satisfying. The realm of policy is a zero-sum game. If we get the policies we desire, our opponents don’t, and vice versa. So if we were to grant that our opponents had decent, good, and true motives, and this acquiescence led them to get their policies enacted, then we would lose. This gives us an incentive to engage in the sort of rabidly partisan rhetoric that makes politics such a mind-killer.

The beauty of competitive government is that it creates an environment in which political ideologies compete, but do not conflict. If a group of people holds to a certain ideology that differs from the rest of the group they are a part of – they can move, create their own society, and demonstrate that their ideology is superior, or not. And those who remain in a society have no incentive to presume the worst of these people – merely to assume that they have an idea for what would make a better society, and then patiently see if they are right.

An environment like that would render partisanship irrelevant. Your political views could be recognized as nothing more controversial than your preference for a certain type of cuisine. Peaceful, don’t you think?

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