Friday, July 31, 2009

The Rational and Irrational in Politics: Gaining and Holding Power

Bryan Caplan on the idea of "Totalitarian Political Entrepreneurship".
The premise: While guys like Lenin, Hitler, and Mao were hopelessly deluded about many things, their beliefs about how to win and hold power were probably correct. After all, these totalitarian political entrepreneurs managed to pull themselves from obscurity to absolute power - no easy feat.
Good comment by Edgardo E. Barandiaran:

Howdy Mao!Image by zoomar via Flickr

Perhaps you should distinguish between winning power and holding power. A politician can succeed in winning power by promising irrational policies (Obama is just the latest example). It is much harder to succeed in holding power by implementing irrational policies--you can do it as, for example, Mao did it in China (the only measure of success in holding power is to die of natural causes while still in power--if you have any doubts about this point, talk to Gordon). To illustrate my point of how difficult is to hold power by implementing irrational policies, I suggest that you look at the experience of Argentina since Peron was first elected president (February 1946). There have been presidents that won the position just by default (they were "elected" or "appointed" because any of the strong man could not defeat the other strong men) and others that succeeded to win power promising irrational policies (Alfonsin, Menem, the Kirchners) but had a hard time holding power. Read this application of some of Mancur Olson's ideas to the current situation of Ms. Kirchner (published today in La Nacion)

Cover of Cover via Amazon [In Spanish - applying Mancur Olson's idea of roving thieves and stationary bandits from Power and Prosperity, nice write-up ]
I am very hesitant to use the term "irrational" to describe the actions of others. Living your life using a rough model of the germ theory of disease is Rational. Not doing so is Irrational. Beyond that, I find those terms too prejudicial for reasoned analysis of other's actions. I would prefer to talk about "actions leading to winning power" and "actions consistent with holding power until natural death". Or, in the case of United States Presidents "actions consistent with holding power for two terms and commanding respect and notoriety and large speaking fees until natural death".

We all have our time machines. Some take us ba...Image by [ r ♥ c e y t ♥ y ] {I br♥ke for bokeh} via Flickr

Obama seems incapable of making the same mistake twice. You can go far with only this skill, in politics, if you have some reserve of good will. Obama will veer to the right to hold on to power, reflexively. To the disgust of progressives, and to the delight of some, and the apathy of the rest.
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