Taking Politics Seriously
How not to trick yourself // How to check to see if your walk matches your talk
Taking any task seriously requires deliberate effort. By “take it seriously,” I mean something like “trying to connect means to ends efficiently, with deliberate use of an epistemic error correction mechanism.” In other words, being ruthlessly honest with yourself about whether what you’re doing is correct, course correcting when necessary, and not ignoring evidence that indicates you’re wrong.
Taking politics—the science of determining the rules of our society—seriously is hard. While many people enjoy discussing it in a sporting fashion, when it gets down to brass tacks, NYC’s culture is woefully short of abundance-minded individuals who are serious. Which means the politics of abundance—the politics of achieving more (housing, transit, wealth, etc)—lacks agentic ammunition.
This essay summarizes some forces that make taking politics seriously difficult, and helps the reader to check if they are, in fact, as serious as they think they are. Because, in my experience, helping people to not trick themselves (and bending over backwards to check if I’m tricking myself) is the fastest way to political progress, not barraging them with talking points.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”
—Cargo Cult Science: Some remarks on science, pseudoscience, and learning how to not fool yourself. Caltech’s 1974 commencement address, by Richard Feynman.
Thinking in terms of “good guys and bad guys,” not cause and effect. This has the same effect on political efficacy as it does on the development of material technology. In reality, although there are good and bad actors in the political system, one of the heaviest thumbs on the scale is the mere fact of the status quo, which is a bundle of specific legal and political conditions. If you want to understand and change why things are the way they are, but you can’t move beyond a mentality of “good/bad guys,” which means moving toward a mentality of looking at actual legal and political mechanisms, you probably aren’t taking the politics of abundance seriously.
Not exerting consistent, moderate effort over at least a few months. Gaining enough knowledge to even understand the government in a practical way is difficult. You can’t do it all in one frenzied sitting; many people do try to do this, usually driven by rage or frustration at something that’s happened, and then they burn out when they realize the task is larger than they thought. But honestly, wouldn’t it be weird if you could solve large political problems that fast? For the same reasons that you wouldn’t expect to learn a foreign language to fluency or train your body to superior speed/strength in an evening, you should not expect to take politics seriously without a medium- and long-term mentality.
Not performing some basic checks and kicking the tires 1: can you draw a diagram of the government (whichever is relevant to your task, and determining that requires exerting effort over time!) in any basic, meaningful detail? In other words, do you know what its components are? If you can’t, then how can you expect to guide their operation? How can you expect to stand up to rhetorical scrutiny? You can certainly learn all of this, but, to the point above, it’s not an overnight process.
Not performing some basic checks and kicking the tires 2: Do you ever read primary sources directly and understand them well (the actual laws, court cases, histories and letters, interviews, etc), or do you rely exclusively on second-hand sources like articles, tweets, and whatever your friends are saying at parties?
Not performing some basic checks and kicking the tires 3: have you ever attended any kind of government meeting, joined a political group, volunteered for a campaign, or otherwise touched the political process yourself? Have you done it regularly enough to have a good model of it?
Not performing some basic checks and kicking the tires 4: are you committed to living in a particular place for the long term? This is not always, but is most usually, required to achieve political change. Generally, committing to a place is like committing to a marriage; the commitment makes it work, and allows the relationship to achieve compounding returns. Where is your driver’s license or state ID from? Is it where you want to make political change? If not, why not?
Letting the bad memes run the show. Most people have their political seriousness kneecapped from the beginning by the anti-politics meme and the anti-concreteness meme. To take the politics of abundance seriously means regarding politics as potentially beautiful and necessary, the province of honest and potent people, and to banish vagueness.
Having a false repulsion to power. Since starting Maximum New York, many people have asked me some version of the question, “So are you looking for political power?” The question is always somewhat pointed or skeptical, but the answer is yes, I am actively seeking political power. It is good to seek it, and it is necessary. Frankly, the question is silly. Power is the ability to translate will into consequence. There are, accordingly, several kinds of power: physical power, social/influential power, intellectual power, political power, etc. You shouldn’t want power for the mere sake of having it, and there are proper and improper ways of wielding it, but you should want it as a means to achieving good ends. If you shy away from acquiring political power because you regard its pursuit as somehow vicious, then you will merely be run over by those who do pursue it. Besides, most people do want and strive for power, they just have conflicted feelings about it.
Lack of social technology and social technological sophistication, and an unwillingness to reshore our base of the latter. In my essay Atlantis on the Hudson, I contend that most New Yorkers no longer know how to do things in the political or civic realm, and they don’t know how to learn. They’re in the same position with social technology that the US is currently in with industrial capacity: it’s been off-shored, and we are now realizing we need it back. Serious people in politics are working to jumpstart the city’s social technological base again, how to create citizens who build.
If you aren’t sure how to pursue the points above, I can help. Applications for the next cohorts of The Foundations of New York open later this month.