Dogmatism in Government

Earlier I wrote:

 At some point, even if you think the country is committing the legislative equivalent of seppuku, the rules of the game require that you admit defeat and allow the government to continue to operate.

I then promised to elaborate in a future post. This is that post.

We want our politicians to truly believe in the positions they take, and we don’t want those positions to change. We want to be able to look at Barack Obama, immediately think, “there stands an incorrigible Marxist“, and know that to be true now, and true always.* Mitt Romney was eviscerated during his presidential campaign, and by his own party no less, for not believing in, “anything but his own ambition.” Transposing that attitude to a situation like the debt ceiling stand-off, it becomes easier to see why politicians would stake out, and cling tightly to, a seemingly untenable and visibly counterproductive policy stance.

Suppose we, as voters, exhibit a preference for candidates who truly believe in their deepest souls the policies for which they advocate. Those candidates are then marginally more likely to win, and subsequently govern with all the ideological flexibility of an I-beam. In this context, the debt ceiling fight is not about competence, or efficacy, or governance. It’s about ideology, beliefs, and principles. And what kind of politician is willing to compromise on those? A half-assed, no-good, dirty rotten lying one, that’s what kind. So perhaps, within certain (flawed?) parameters, the debt ceiling showdown was not as unreasonable as it appeared. If you imagine the game as a zero-sum, ideological contest, the rules don’t demand you admit defeat (which is what I initially wrote).**

Now collide that predilection with a preference for “good governance”. No pork barrel spending, no backroom deals, no growth rate games – nothing with which to grease the wheels of discontent.*** What you wind up with instead of principled good governance, is, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, pig-headed shit governance.

I’ve always imagined that, all else equal, it couldn’t hurt to have representatives who actually believed in their campaign platforms, and who weren’t constructing them based purely on focus groups and opinion polls (something about integrity and nobility and all that). But of course practically speaking, it shouldn’t matter. If voters prefer Policy Package A, they will vote for the politician aligned accordingly, and who cares where his alignment came from (personal belief, informed polling, random chance, etc).**** But this most recent episode of America the ungovernable suggests we might do better with a few more politicians who are more concerned about their poll numbers than their ideology.

*Obviously the President is not a Marxist. Though this man thinks otherwise
**Here‘s some research suggesting that under certain parameters, that is exactly what voters expect (h/t Reason)
***Interestingly, McArdle and the Cato Institute study she cites suggests this state of affairs is more a function of slow growth and its attendant economic realities
****Of course, this assumes voters are rational and choose on the basis of policy