Politics: an undervalued opportunity to change the world?

It might seem odd to call poli­tics un­der­val­ued. But if we want to think about how to im­prove mat­ters for mil­lions of peo­ple, it’s clear that effec­tive gov­er­nance and in­sti­tu­tions which pro­mote hu­man flour­ish­ing are ex­tremely valuable. One ex­am­ple is the Jin dy­nasty: in be­tween the end of the Han dy­nasty and the rise of the Jin, the Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion dropped by 4/​5ths. The wars im­mor­tal­ized in Ro­mance of the Three King­doms ere the dead­liest be­fore WWII. The ex­is­tence of any halfway com­pe­tent cen­tral power would have spared mil­lions of peo­ple.

Closer to home hous­ing poli­cies in the Bay Area force the poor­est in so­ciety to spend vast sums to keep a roof over their head. Poor ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties re­duce the ul­ti­mate earn­ing po­ten­tial of mil­lions. In some cases, such as pol­lu­tion con­trols, the costs of poor poli­cies are mea­sured in lives.

Many peo­ple en­ter poli­tics, and com­pe­ti­tion is tough. But many op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­ist that are fre­quently un­der­ex­ploited, such as school boards, trans­porta­tion boards, and down-ticket po­si­tions with con­sid­er­able power. Often these po­si­tions are dom­i­nated by peo­ple with­out an un­der­stand­ing of the is­sue, and sub­ject to heavy lob­by­ing from those who are di­rectly in­volved. Oc­ca­sion­ally im­por­tant poli­cies are made in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity: who here knew about the raisin price con­trols be­fore it came be­fore the Supreme Court?

There are many ways in which poli­tics might be af­fected. One is through poli­ti­cal the­o­riz­ing. Robert Bork’s The An­titrust Para­dox in­fluence a gen­er­a­tion of judges and poli­cy­mak­ers, lead­ing to a rad­i­cally differ­ent an­titrust policy in the US, which benefited con­sumers. Mil­ton Fried­man was the hand­maiden of a ma­jor shift in eco­nomic policy in the US. On the other end Sayyid Qutb has been blamed for the rise of Is­lamism, which has made life a great deal less pleas­ant for many peo­ple around the world. How­ever, the re­turns on poli­ti­cal the­ory are ex­tremely un­cer­tain: many works of poli­ti­cal philos­o­phy go ig­nored.

Another is through poli­ti­cal or­ga­niz­ing. Here the model is the So­cial Demo­cratic par­ties of yore, which had profound effects on the so­cial in­sti­tu­tions of the coun­tries in which they op­er­ated. To the ex­tent the poor­est in Europe are bet­ter off be­cause of these par­ties, this work di­rectly im­proved peo­ple’s lives. Un­for­tu­nately, there is good rea­son to sus­pect this is much less doable to­day.

A third is through com­pe­tent lead­er­ship. Many mu­ni­ci­pal­ities are gov­erned poorly for a va­ri­ety of fac­tors. Publi­cly minded cit­i­zens with slightly bet­ter than av­er­age in­ter­est should be able to copy good poli­cies into poorly gov­erned cities. Many bad poli­cies are the re­sult of rent-seek­ing, which can eas­ily be re­sisted, at the cost of hav­ing re­sources for re­elec­tion.

Poli­tics in­her­ently in­volves lev­er­age. De­ci­sions about poli­cies af­fect all those in a ju­ris­dic­tion where the policy ap­plies, and can have knock-on effects, such as fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion in a ma­jor fi­nance cen­ter, or the im­pact of Cal­ifor­nia emis­sion stan­dards on au­to­mo­biles. Fur­ther­more, good in­sti­tu­tions can last for cen­turies.

At its most ex­treme, de­ci­sive poli­ti­cal ac­tion has changed the fates of mil­lions. At its least ex­treme an effec­tive mayor can en­sure that chil­dren are ed­u­cated, pot­holes re­paired, and new hous­ing built. In be­tween poli­tics may offer the best lev­er­age of any op­por­tu­nity for al­tru­ism.