Great question -
I’m curious as to what your take on getting involved in politics is. For as long as I’ve been reading your blog, I’ve never seen you directly mention the subject, but many of the topics you touch on would be things anyone interested in statecraft would do well to master.
The way I see this, and I guess it is just part of my personality, is that it would be an all or nothing sort of deal. Either you get seriously involved or you stop paying close attention. It has really been wearing on my sanity to be knowledgeable on the subject but do nothing about it.
[...personal details about local government problems removed...]
Current situation aside, how do you feel about entering the public arena in general? Does the mask you have to wear to be allowed to play the game eventually corrupt? (I say mask in relation to your post about how as soon as you are addressing a large group of people your depth of connection has to shrink) Is it so hopeless and/or soul-sucking that I instead should just give money to somebody to fight for me?
Curious what you think.
Thanks for your time,
Yes, I study statecraft. History, economics, law, governance, policing, commerce, regulation, warfare, organization, bureaucracy, leadership, speaking, communication, decisionmaking, statistics, probability, ecology, health and epidemiology, secondary effects, education, development and planning, things like that.
I dig that stuff. I read as much on it as I can.
But we need to draw a distinction. Those topics are governance-related, not politics-related.
My feeling is this - governance is a very positive thing, good to study, and good for the world. Good governance is one of the things of primary importance to the world.
Politics, on the other hand, is at best non-destructive. Politics can not be good. Politics has never been good, can never be good, and won't be good.
Politics is trading favors, appealing to various factions for votes, politicking and cutting deals and things like that.
The best you can hope for, in politics, is that it doesn't overwhelm and destroy your government. Which it has, many times.
Politics creates all kind of unholy alliances. Politics means that Group A support subsidies for Destructive Activity B, so that Group B agrees to create regulations that break the back of all of Group A's competitors. In a system of governance without this political wheeling and dealing, Group A would naturally be opposed to subsidizing Destructive Activity B (for instance, ethanol/corn subsidies in America), and Group B would be opposed to choking off all of Group A's competition (for instance, regulation that gives exclusive local infrastructure rights to one company, and bars competitors).
Politics typically results in terrible governance.
Anyways, five points basically here -
1. I’m curious as to what your take on getting involved in politics is... many of the topics you touch on would be things anyone interested in statecraft would do well to master.
You sound to me like you're interested in what I call "governance" (what you call "statecraft"), and like you're not interested in politics. I feel the same way. I believe in governance, but politics more or less turns me off. There's ways to affect and improve governance without getting involved in politics though.
2. It has really been wearing on my sanity to be knowledgeable on the subject but do nothing about it.
There are things you can do to improve governance without politics. Well, not entirely without politics, even the most basic of human interactions includes some minor political component. But you can largely focus on governance and improving it with minimal politics.
3. Current situation aside, how do you feel about entering the public arena in general?
I applied to be a reserve officer for the LAPD in 2009 - that's a role that volunteers and gets police training and supports the police force in an auxiliary role regularly, and is called on if emergencies strike. My application was turned down, sadly, but I do believe in public service absolutely. In any semi-sane area, the police are mostly apolitical and that's a way to affect governance, for instance. I've been doing casual research into counter-insurgency for a while, and if I can help develop counter-insurgencies techniques to help protect civilians and servicemen from crime and terrorism, I will.
My profile is generally rising in the world right now, I've been meeting a lot of people and getting recruited for a lot of things. This is all in business these days, but if I was called on to improve the governance of a nation or area that I had respect and loyalty to, I would. In fact, it's one of the things I aim to do with my life.
But I don't see myself as a politician. Advisor, researcher, administrator, negotiator, manager, officer - I'd serve in one of those roles if I was called on. But I don't think my skillset is well-suited for running for a political office.
4. Does the mask you have to wear to be allowed to play the game eventually corrupt?
No and yes. The "mask" - having a public persona that differs from your private persona - is part of doing anything publicly. For instance, as a general rule, you should never show fatigue or illness or doubt if you're in a position of leadership or command. But that doesn't corrupt you, that's just part of how things are.
What does corrupt you is that you have to make deals that you know are wrong. "He who pays the piper calls the tune" - well, he who pays the politician calls the tune.
For instance, no one sane could support corn/ethanol subsidies on the basis of governance. It's just a terribly bad idea that increases pollution, shifts what gets produced agriculturally in America to worse stuff due to incentives, and then we wind up with corn and corn syrup in god damn everything we eat which makes people fat and obese and unhealthy.
But, the beneficiaries of corn/ethanol subsidies tend to be clustered in Republican/Midwestern states. The Republicans can't well attack and alienate their own base. And the Democrats don't want to get into an austerity war, since their supporters generally get a much larger share of subsidies and benefits than Republicans.
The problem is, people need to rationalize to feel good about themselves. A Senator can't well say, "Yeah, corn subsidies are destructive to America, but I have to back them for political reasons" - he can't say that, he has to talk about... I don't know, the tradition of farmers in America and how important they are. Or some nonsense like that (there's no independent farmers any more anyways, it's all large farming conglomerates, some of them running land at a loss in order to pick up subsidies - crazy). So the Senator has to keep going to bat for stuff he doesn't believe in, which destroys his will. It's not being unable to show his true feelings that breaks him - we all have an external persona to some extent, and you can survive that - but instead being forced to repeatedly speak against his true feelings that breaks him.
(In case anyone's wondering what I'd do with farm subsidies if it was up to me, I'd write a check for 10 years worth of subsidies right now and then discontinue them forever afterwards.)
5. Is it so hopeless and/or soul-sucking that I instead should just give money to somebody to fight for me?
Okay, I shouldn't laugh. But I'll refer you to one of the most important works of political science in history -
These arms [of mercenaries] may be useful and good in themselves, but for him who calls them in they are always disadvantageous; for losing, one is undone, and winning, one is their captive. [...]
I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valour which in adversity would defend it. And it has always been the opinion and judgment of wise men that nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength. And one's own forces are those which are composed either of subjects, citizens, or dependants; all others are mercenaries or auxiliaries.
- "The Prince, Chapter XIII: Concerning Auxiliaries, Mixed Soldiery, And One's Own" - Nicolo Machiavelli
That's one of the most important lines in The Prince. "[Using mercenaries is] always disadvantageous; for losing, one is undone, and winning, one is their captive."
When you pay someone to fight for you (or politick for you, or otherwise get you what you want), then either you lose when they lose, or you're bound to keep paying them forever. That's how we wind up with as screwed up governance as we do, the long tangled web of money and favors.
And you can't really dependent on mercenaries - they turn on you if it's opportune. Or they retire, and their successor decides that your interests aren't as important to his political base as some rival faction, and he chooses them. "It has always been the opinion and judgment of wise men that nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength."
Beware paying people to fight for your interests. It's... incredibly unreliable.
No, it sounds to me like you've got the will to make a difference, but you don't really have the stomach for politics. Maybe you will later - the more the years pass, the less idealistic and more pragmatic I become. Perhaps later you could make the requisite devil's bargains in order to reach power, but it sounds to me like you don't have the stomach for it right now.
So instead, focus on improving your skill at governance, and make yourself useful to those who are in charge. If you're serious about making a difference in your community, start by trying to reach relatively low-ranked politicians who are already favorable to your general position. Research the politician and his causes, understand what matters to him, and go in and present yourself as favorable, appreciative, and willing to serve.
I would say, take a position of 50% admiration, 40% desiring to learn a little bit from him or her, and 10% sharing an observation or valuable piece of information. If you can bring him an interesting report, set of facts, book with important passages underlined... something like that. But again, 90% interested in what he or she is already doing - admiration and curiosity.
If it makes sense, then present your findings and how you can help. Try to make this apolitical as much as you can - you don't want to turn "political mode" on. Just like with a tough negotiator, you don't want to flip their competitive instinct; with a savvy politician, you don't want to turn political mode on. If so, you'll be getting schmoozed and promises made and platitudes. Whereas if you want to actually affect governance, it seems like it'd be better to get the honest perspective and feelings of whoever you're meeting.
So 90% admiration, but don't promise votes or money or anything like that. You'd be way out of your league anyways, since it sounds like you don't have much experience in the political game (yet). Instead, focus on the causes the person cares about, and try to make yourself use from a governing perspective in those causes.
Don't ask for anything. Don't promise anything. Just admire, ask good questions, and offer a bit of service.
You can do this in person or via writing letters, probably a mix of them would serve you well. Treat everyone in the person's office well. Then expand from there - it's kind of a funny thing, being acknowledged as an expert is one of the things that makes you an expert. If a number of politicians keep your counsel, then your counsel starts to be seen as expert and valuable.
Of course, you need to actually have some skill and chops in whatever form of governance matters to you, but you sound like an intelligent and motivated person to me, so it shouldn't be too hard to acquire the skill and knowledge. And the more your counsel is taken, the more people become willing and excited to teach you and expand. It's truly a virtuous cycle - if your counsel is seen as valuable, then others want to teach you to make your counsel even more valuable.
Note that none of this process is particularly fast. Like anything in life, building the strength and ability and resources and connections to do large meaningful work takes a while. Just like you ought to be skeptical of anyone who promises instant results with a diet, huge returns with no risk in investing, or instant success in entrepreneurship without hard work - likewise you should be skeptical of someone who promises to make great changes on your behalf in governance or politics.
To truly shape the course of human affairs, it takes time to hone your skill and knowledge, and to demonstrate your ability and usefulness to those who currently have say on how things are.
But it sounds to me like you could do it - very good questions, and thanks for reaching out.
If you have experience in politics and/or governance, please comment on this article or email me. Anonymous commenting is fine. I'd love to hear more about what you think, your analysis of C's question and my response, and to generally learn more on this. Thank you.
Interesting post, as always. I am also interested in improving governance without becoming an elected politician. You talk at the end about the importance of honing skills and knowledge that are useful to politicians. What do you think are the skills that are most under-appreciated? At the moment I am focusing on statistics and the programming needed to support it because I think that most people undervalue data and what can be drawn from it relative to opinions. What do you think I, or anyone else interested in the field, should focus on next?
I would write you an e-mail but this post is good occasion.
I'm rereading a good book on the subject of strategy ang governance I wish to recommend it to you. You can look at it in the link - A treatise on efficacy: between Western and Chinese thinking by François Jullien. The book is so good because makes a comparison between western and chinese thinking and shows the differences. I promise you it will change your perspective.
I've got to be honest with you - I don't really like politics anyways. Governance, I like governance. I believe in good governance. But I don't believe in good politics - in fact, I don't even think there is such a thing as good politics. Politics can certainly be bad or stupid or destructive, but almost never good. Diplomacy can be good. Governance can be good. Politics can at best strive not to be bad, stupid, and destructive; it can't ever be good.
Yet, sometimes I'll see a discussion on some outpost of the internet that I visit, and then I might be tempted to jump in. From now on, new policy - no trying to persuade anyone of my politics. Instead, I'll look to share some historical background or references I've read or learned about that I find valuable, and let people mostly draw their own conclusions. Maybe I'll share my own views if I've already given a number of relevant examples.
But no more just trying to convince someone their politics are mistaken - it doesn't work, and besides, I don't like politics anyways. I should talk governance with people with historical examples, not politics. Governance is good. That's something I can get behind, good governance. Politics, not so much.
Question from a reader --
You mentioned in "On Disagreeing With A Client's Plans" that there are benefits to being good at politics, looking good, etc. Why should one invest his or her energy in politics (activity A) rather than activities X, Y, and Z?