Politics as a Vocation

Via Scott Sumner, Tyler Cowen has a lesson he wants politicians to learn:

Hard Boards (cc photo by elsie)

A simple one is to do the right thing. That sounds naïve, but if you think about these people, if they don’t get reelected, the jobs and lives they fall into are remarkably good. And I don’t just mean by the broader historical standards of the human race, compared to the Stone Age, but even compared to other wealthy people in 21st-century America. So most politicians ought to have the stones to vote for what they think is right, even if it may be an idea I disagree with, and say to the voters, “Send me back to my life as whatever. I’m willing to do this to address our fiscal problems, or fight for the right kind of reform, and risk my office.” And I just don’t see much of that. And that’s disheartening.

I definitely agree with the sentiment here, namely that we need to always be doing what we can to raise the level of public morality. But I think people—particularly opinionated writerly people—have a tendency to vastly overrate the merits of this kind of “bold stand” as a political tactic. Nobody likes to read politicians’ blogs, but by the same token we don’t actually want politicians to act like bloggers. A politician needs to have an “ethic of responsibility” and that entails not just standing up for the right thing, but actually making the right thing likely to happen. And especially in the American political system, that means “playing a constructive role in the assembly of broad legislative coalitions.”