Just So Stories and the Future of All we as Americans Hold Dear

— The lord knows I love Julian. And I loved his piece in Reason on the libertarian case for Dean (or whoever the electable Dem is). It's a good argument. Maybe I'll vote for Dean!
Early on in the essay, while farting in Virginia's general direction, Julian speaks of the dichotomizing tribalism saturating political discourse. “You pick your team and root for it, come hell or high water!” Woo hoo! This sort of autopilot gang devotion is beneath the underside of the bottom of contempt for those of us who occupy the clean cool air beyond the reaches of mere ideology. Because he's a man, and not the robot-puppet of the package-dealing propaganda masters, Julian just won't have it. He is not only able to vote for a Democrat, but, despite the short but undistinguished libertarian alliance with Republicans, he is WILLING to actually do it! I heartily applaud his independence of mind.
Now, Julian's argument is almost totally innocent of a certain bad thing, but there was a bit of the taint there, and every time I catch a whiff, I get worried that political commentary is just a very weird form of improvisational sport and not really, you know, serious. Horse race political argument is all like this:
If Dumbledore is elected, then the Grand Parliament will pin him to a hammock, thereby defusing his tendencies toward genocide. If Puffnstuff is elected, the Parliament will root wildly as he authorizes the jackbooted thugs to defile the sacred burial ground. So we should favor Dumbledore and a divided government. Unless Gewurztraminer gets in the race, in which case Puffnstuff doesn't stand a chance in the primaries, Dumbledore will be razed in the general election, and we'll be helpless to avoid collusion between the government and Big Hair in their bid to nationalize the cosmetology industry. Etc., etc., etc….
I'm not complaining. I love just-so stories not only as much as but MORE THAN, the next boy. (The next boy is Nick. Hi Nick!) But as a basis for making an actual realworld decision, it's sort of silly, isn't it? I had no idea Bush would cultivate the regulatory state like a prize pumpkin. And NO ONE ON THIS BLESSED ORB (other than those involved) foresaw the grisly events of September 11, 2001. A fortiori no one foresaw the Patriot Act, the dread ascendancy of Dark Lord Ashcroft, and so forth.
But 9/11's just an instance of a general principle. Huge amounts of bad policy get enacted because some unpredictable event, big or little, rejiggers fickle public sentiment for a month or so. And that's rejiggering enough to open a window of opportunity big enough for some interest group to jump through. It's well nigh impossible to tell what's going to agitate the zeitgeist, which interest group or coalition will leap, how the press will spin it, how the executive will react, and how that reaction will interact with the legislature. Sure, we can ASK candidates what they'd do under various contingencies. But we'll never think of the contingency that turns out to matter most.
Telling the future is hard enough. But its even harder than that because POLITICIANS LIE! They don't always tell us what they really think. They tell us what they think we want them to think. And even if they tell us what they think, that doesn't tell us what they'll do. Why not? Because like all of us, politicians don't quite know what they're going to do until they actually have to do it. And the circumstances under which they actually have to do it inevitably turn out to be damn different from the scenario they had imagined, and they'll be swayed by considerations that just didn't occur to them while running their little offline imaginative simulation of “what I would do if terrorists attacked us” or whatever. When we actually decide, we're hot. But when we're cool, we think we'll always be cool, even when the heat is on. So we mispredict our own behavior. So Dumbeldore's confident proclamation of his plan of action is likely to be worth less than the vibrations in the air that it's not written on.
So what am I saying? That NOTHING MATTERS!? No! If I thought our proud citizenry in their very limited wisdom might actually elect some fascist Gewurztraminer who would damn us all to a lifetime of bowl cuts (FOR WHICH WE WOULD HAVE TO WAIT IN LINE!) I might get motivated to jump into the fray. But, for the most part, our institutions protect us from ourselves fairly well, and our ambient mytho-ideologies offset one another pretty nicely. So when you've got a system like ours, where the candidates are jockeying like Tobey McGuire on Seabiscuit for that median voter, the winners will be so alike, as far as we can tell, that's there's little point in shedding sweet perspiration over who gets to pretend to be Michael Douglas.
If I was bored enough to vote, I'd vote on some kind of personality-free statistical fact, such as the supposed fact that divided governments grow slower. If that's the case, then who cares which tribe is which, or who gets to be the chief?
Well, say what you will about Dean-leaning libertarians, at least its an ethos.
[Yes, I am happy to take credit for “Dean-leaner” bon mot. ]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center