Handle at Worst

Bump. Set.

For the spike:

Adam’s question contains what I mean when I employ the ugly phrase “political kayfabe”, that grotesque shared lie bloated rather than withered by constant exposure to the light of day.

What if believing true sincerity is too rare to expect actually acts like a tax on the truly sincere? What if believing that the institutional destiny of politicians and civil servants is to become scumbags and parasites regardless of who they are to begin with actually acts as an “honor tax” on those professions, ensuring that we only get scumbags and parasites?

I say Adam has not gone far enough with this question. In my OP, I implored you, my dearest sweet reader, to get all recursive with that junk: assume perfect (or as near-to-perfect as you can manage) information, or at least meta-information. Assume that the median voter knows that the political elite knows that the median voter knows that… politicians are venal, corrupt liars. Even with perfect information, the doctrine of revealed preferences tells us that constituents want, perhaps desperately so, a cabal of liars, cheats, and thieves in positions of political power. It’s not a matter of an adverse equilibrium, it’s more like Machiavelli’s loathsome Prince dwells in the breast of the democratic sovereign.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Adam calls this “cynical”, but I’m not sure that captures the spirit of the thing. Cynicism is marked by a notable lack of faith. In this case, it’s a lack of faith in the deep nature of humanity. I claim that since human nature is indelibly stamped with the Marky Mark of Hypocrisy, the cynical position is to surrender to hopelessness, to descend into a gemebund lament where fantasies about catching kids running through fields of rye abound. It’s my impression that adult readers rightfully view the young Mr. Caulfield with generous dollops of pity and contempt.

Contrast the immature cries of “hypocrite” with the more placid reflections of Joyce’s Stately, Plump Buck Mulligan, who in the opening lines of Ulysses began his morning shave with a ritual roundly mocking the deep pomp of his patently ludicrous culture. Caulfield pines for sincerity, Mulligan is adult enough to know better.

Even Hemingway’s terse characters were mature enough to tussle with the conflicted, conflicting nature of man. It was The Old Man and the Sea, not the Old Man and the Parking Lot.

The question isn’t so much whether or not we have scumbags and parasites, but how shall we constrain the scumbags and the parasites from destabilizing the host.

Well, at least that’s what I thought the question was. I’m not so sure anymore these days. The ultimate goal of social arrangements should (forgive the explicit normative claim) be mutually beneficial peaceful production and exchange. Everything else is at best window-dressing. Any political arrangement that fails to serve this purpose is a chancre on society, and I strain to imagine how responsible citizens should tolerate great, shaggy, festering chancres sprouting all o’er the tubby corpus of the land. The point of constitutional political economy is to prod the patient, find out why infections blossom where they do, figure out how to keep shambling despite both venal and institutional corruption, and excise tumors when appropriate. But always always always to keep the eyes on the prize: human flourishing, easing them thar natural and artificial barriers keeping folks from mutually felicitous production and euvoluntary exchange.

Irony and cynicism are red herrings. As long as everyone’s in on the kayfabe, it’s a great big joshing joke. The trouble comes when we allow ourselves the duplicitous pleasure of believing our own (and others’) bullshit and start treating political kayfabe as if it were sincere talk.

There’s a reason I included that FNM video in my last post: garbage pop music got the wind taken out of its sails with the release of that album. It’s well about time we had a Mike Patton of politics. It’s the pomposity, Captain; she can’t take much more of it.

3 thoughts on “Handle at Worst

  1. People throughout the US are happy with their congressmen but loathe congress. The beast within the democratic sovereign thus appears to be narrow representation of constituent interests. It’s easy as an outsider to ascertain kayfabe in someone else’s representative. The problem then is not democracy per se but the present state of American republicanism.

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