It is better to signal goodness than to do good.
That’s it. That’s the lesson. (Thanks to Steve Horwitz for the title of this post.) Democratic politics is mostly about signals not substance. The lesson is simple, but somehow hard to learn.
Okay, okay, I admit that’s not really the One Great Lesson From Which Everything Else Follows. First of all, I’m talking about democratic politics in more or less normal times. Even then, power matters quite apart from signaling. Adam Smith was right to talk about a human “love of domination and tyrannizing.” Knowledge matters quite apart from signaling. Sincere do-gooders who think they know better are at least as dangerous as the ordinary knaves Hume warned us against. And I would never pretend to have improved on Madison’s great lesson from Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Nevertheless, signaling always matters in politics. Most of the time, democratic politics is mostly about signaling. Mostly we try to signal goodness. This lesson applies to both sides of the ballot box. On the voters’ side, we are mostly engaged in “expressive voting” as Brennan and Buchanan have clarified.
Why bother voting when you vote has essentially no chance to tip the balance? You vote to express yourself. Often, you are expressing a set of values that send a signal to yourself and others that you are a good person who should be trusted in social exchange. I vote for the X Party because I am a good person with the right values and I deserve to be recognized as such. It’s a bit like Vaclav Havel’s greengrocer in the old Soviet system who posts a sign saying “Workers of the world, unite!” to get along.
Politicians also signal goodness. Somehow, it is hard to learn that politicians are interested in signaling goodness, but not interested in doing good. Even otherwise highly sophisticated persons become ensnared, somehow, in the pleasing but empty rhetoric of one party or another.
What “goodness” consists in varies from one constituency to the next. Thus, we have heated debates over the signals without much difference in real policy choices made. Senator Obama, for example, signaled his superior respect for civil liberties, the rule of law, and the US Constitution. But President Obama has been a nearly perfect disciple of his apparent idol, George W. Bush.
The Republican Party signals goodness in part by talking up free markets. In substance, however, it is pro-business not pro-markets. I cannot really understand why so many classical liberals are strongly attached to the Republican Party unless it is because they mistake that party’s pro-market rhetoric for pro-market substance. They should learn that politics is about signaling goodness, not doing good.
The Democratic Party signals goodness in part by talking up equality, especially racial equality. In substance, however, it supports policies such as the minimum wage that are disproportionately harmful to black Americans.
P.S. It seems SNL writers have a similar analysis of Obama: SNL Vs. Obama: Sketch Details All The President’s Failures Since Taking Office