Stop having political opinions

Updated 2024-01-15 / Created 2023-09-24 / 1.57k words

This is, of course, all part of my evil plan to drive site activity through systematically generating (meta)political outrage.

This may sound strange coming from someone whose website contains things which are clearly political opinions; I am being hypocritical/didn't notice/have updated my views since that/am writing hyperbolically or ironically to make a point/do not require myself to have self-consistent beliefs (select your favourite option). Regardless, I think that holding, forming and in various ways acting on political opinions is somewhere between unnecessary and significantly net harmful. I apologize in advance for not using concrete examples for anything in this post, but those would be political opinions.

Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness

Political interaction is often framed as altruistic[1] or even morally necessary - most notably, voting is a "civic duty"[2], and it's common for political movements and their participants to believe that they are helping to bring about a better world through their actions, or that they're preventing some other group from doing harm (and thus in some sense doing good) with their ill-posed opinions, misaligned values or sheer evilness. Thus, let's evaluate it as an altruistic act using the ITN framework favoured by Effective Altruism. In brief, Importance is the value of fully solving whatever problem you're targeting, Tractability is the marginal value of your input to it (how much an additional unit of work can affect the problem), and Neglectedness is how little the problem is already being worked on.

Politics clearly fails at neglectedness. The majority of people are interested at least to the extent of thinking and talking about it regularly and voting. Very large chunks of media time are allotted to politics, and people readily seek out political content to read and debate. There is no shortage of advocacy groups, think tanks and public intellectuals engaging in politics. You might contend that your favourite political position is neglected and less popular than widely discussed ones, but given that you are aware of it and supporting it it probably still has a fairly large amount of supporters - the world population is quite large, after all - and since you're still in the same field as all the other positions you are competing with them for resources and attention.

It does not do well on tractability. For mostly the same reasons as neglectedness, your marginal contribution is not big. Voting is, even under fairly optimistic assumptions, very unlikely to change the outcome of an election. Discussing politics with people you know is notorious for never changing anyone's beliefs, and arguments on social media are even less effective - very little discussion surfaces novel ideas and it mostly serves as an ineffective attempt to apply social pressure. The situation with protests and similar activity is perhaps better because there are fewer people doing that, but I do not think their effectiveness is going to be affected much by the addition or removal of a person on the margin, and I am not convinced that they do much in general. Politics is also especially intractable because on many issues, people are actively working against you.

Importance is somewhat more ambiguous. I have been playing fast and loose with the exact definition of "politics" here - while it's clearly true that the sum of everything people want solved via politics is very important, the plausible consequences of something like electing a party you like or having a policy you want implemented are significantly smaller, both from the perspectives of conflict theory (the frame of political disagreements as battles between groups over values or resource allocation) and mistake theory (political disagreements as good-faith discussions of what the best thing to do is given a shared understanding of goals). I found out while researching for this that policy changes are actually surprisingly robust, but there are still problems - mistake-theroretically, the world is very complex and a policy may not actually do what you want, and, conflict-theoretically, an uncooperative government will not implement a policy in the way you want.

The Magic Fix-Everything Button

A large amount of modern politics-as-practiced seems to take a specific kind of conflict-theoretic view which I think makes it less important (in that the policies resulting from it will be worse) as well as less tractable (it's easier to persuade people if they don't tie opposing views into their identity, and easier to take actions if you are not battling some other group). Specifically, the belief that the main obstacle to improving the world is simply that evil people are in power, and that if you can demand it insistently enough you can replace them with favorable people who will then fix everything in a simple and obvious way which has heretofore gone unused. This is exemplified by movements with unclear goals and underspecified demands to fix things.

While there are absolutely some cases where a bad policy exists for conflict-theoretic reasons (e.g. one group wants to enrich itself at the expense of others and opposition is too diffuse to stop it), the biggest problems we face now have no clean complete solution, only a wide range of possible policy positions with a complex set of tradeoffs. Insistence on a particular consequence without thought to how it might actually be achieved, erasure of tradeoffs, or ignorance of the reasons someone else might be against an obviously-good-to-you policy result in prolonged conflict and ineffective results. Where possible, it's better to try and move the Pareto frontier with novel solutions rather than attempting to force through a result against others.

This can also lead to passivity and learned helplessness: not considering solutions to problems other than wrangling large-scale governmental mechanisms. This is also harmful, since the government is not omnicompetent and anything complicated it does is mired in horrifying bureaucratic quagmires of impenetrable dysfunction, as are most large-scale organizations.

Selfish Reasons To Not Participate

Rather than merely not being a public good, I think involvement in politics is even individually harmful. The most obvious reason is opportunity cost - all the time spent reading political news, voting, forming opinions, or having conversations about it could be spent more effectively - but there is the further reason that because people often tie politics to their identities, political discussions are frequently damaging to relationships or prevent people who would otherwise get on fine from doing so.

So if it's bad to participate, why is it so popular? The short answer is, to reuse the favourite adage of "ersatz" on the EleutherAI Discord server, "people are insane". We are adaptation-executors, not fitness-maximizers, built on evolved cognitive heuristics optimized for ancient savannah environments in smaller tribes. It's plausible that in those, tractability and neglectedness were much better and social missteps or groups moving against you significantly costlier, the resulting strategies misgeneralize to today's world of 8 billion people, and few people bother to explicitly reason about the cost/benefit and override this. The system is also self-reinforcing: now that political interaction is considered altruistic and expected, people are incentivized to participate more for signalling reasons.

This can also be blamed on cultural evolution/memetics. As with religions, the most contagious ideologies are selected for and propagate, growing more able to effectively capture human attention regardless of actual value to their hosts. The incentives of media also help: receiving payment for clicks on your videos and articles results in intentional optimization for the same thing, leading to content optimized to spread through exploiting outrage and tribalism.

Universalizability

The most common objection I've heard is along the lines of "but if everyone did this, no political improvement would occur and the world would be much worse off". This is true but irrelevant: I'm not a Kantian and don't only advocate for behaviors which need to apply to everyone at once. In the current state of the world, I think the marginal benefit (to everyone, and to you) of engagement is below the marginal cost and so it should be avoided - if a sufficiently large amount of people agreed with me on this and did so, my arguments would apply less and it would become more worthwhile, and I might then argue in favour of political engagement.

Another is the claim that I am a privileged person who is only able to ignore politics because I'm not heavily threatened or discriminated against by existing instutions. This is entirely missing the point: being more affected by something does not make you more able to affect it.

The best I've had[3] is that even if standard political engagement doesn't do anything, there are some activites considered "politics" which do work and which are reasonably accessible to indviduals, such as local organization, engaging directly with figures in government or writing detailed policy proposals. This is plausibly true, but it's almost entirely orthogonal to most interaction, and having strong opinions on politics tends to bias your judgment of how effective and reasonable your actions actually are.

If you have any arguments against my argument I haven't addressed here, please tell me so I can think about them.


  1. In an amazingly titled essay ("Against Kind Informed Voters", released on Christmas), Robin Hanson argues that becoming more politicially informed and loudly demonstrating that is in itself a selfish action which incentivizes politicians to pay more attention to you, via a retrospective voting model. This is cool but also seems impractically galaxybrained. ↩︎

  2. In some countries (e.g. Australia) it's even compulsory. ↩︎

  3. And the reason why this post was accidentally left as an unfinished draft for several months. ↩︎