The second volume in Bryan Caplan’s series of his EconLog blog post collections asks How Evil Are Politicians? The libertarian Caplan’s answer: very, though some people might be more inclined to use words like “naive” or “irresponsible.” Caplan, who holds himself and others to very high moral standards, is deliberate about his use of the word “evil” for a volume subtitled Essays on Demagoguery and bearing a cover that brings George Orwell’s 1984 to mind. This is obviously intentional; Orwell’s influence is apparent throughout this book, and Caplan is explicit on p. 56: “George Orwell has been a huge influence on me.”

But aren’t politicians just naive, or perhaps irresponsible? Their naivete and irresponsibility makes them evil in Caplan’s eyes. He sets a very high epistemic bar for the aspiring philosopher-king who wishes to order other people around even for their own good. He is right to do so. I quote Adam Smith:

“The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who has folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.” (Wealth of Nations IV.2.10).

Caplan explains how “statesmen” (and stateswomen) time and again fail to show themselves worthy of the authority and power they crave. As Caplan puts it, “If you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times, ever mindful of the possibility that you’re trampling the rights of the morally innocent” (p. 8). The moral and epistemic standards are higher if you think you can run others’ lives.

Politicians might be sincere, but sincerity is no substitute for understanding. As the libertarian author Sheldon Richman has explained, making economic policy while remaining wholly ignorant of basic economics is the intellectual equivalent of drunk driving. To do it once is irresponsible. To drive drunk repeatedly and unrepentantly in school zones right as kids are getting out might deserve the e-word.

As with Labor Econ Versus the World, How Evil Are Politicians? is broken into four categories. Part I explains how “Evil Rules the World.” Part II presents us with A Litany of Evil. Part III lays out Caplan’s “Pragmatic Pacifism,” which I would actually love to see him explore in a serious and scholarly book-length treatment. Finally, section IV asks “How Good is Freedom?”

“Demagoguery,” Caplan explains, “is the politics of Social Desirability Bias” (p. 18, emphasis in original). He then describes “The heart of Social Desirability Bias: Some types of claims sound good or bad regardless of the facts.” Social Desirability Bias is baked into the names of many regulatory agencies and pieces of legislation. Who could be against Equal Employment Opportunity? Or Fair Housing? Or Inflation Reduction? Social Desirability Bias builds philosophical and political systems on the sandy grounds of wishful thinking. People’s views on things like minimum wages, for example, are informed by covert mental substitutions. People thinking about the minimum wage may not understand “the elasticity of labor demand” and so “they mentally substitute easier questions like, ‘Would I be happy if employers gave low-skilled workers a raise?’” (p. 36). The mental substitution then makes it easy to demonize minimum wage skeptics by inferring that they would be sad if low-skilled workers got raises.

I see this pretty regularly in public discussions of “sweatshop” labor. Too frequently, anti-sweatshop crusaders seem to think sweatshop “defenders” believe sweatshop labor is a cosmic good for the people who do it as they deserve no more and might be softened up by higher wages and better working conditions. The actual argument is that sweatshops are often the best of a lot of very bad alternatives, so shutting them down actually makes the workers themselves worse off. That, however, doesn’t lend itself to effective demagoguery.

Caplan’s argument for “Pragmatic Pacifism” applies his analysis of demagoguery and incentives to warfare. Many arguments for war seem to get no further than wishful thinking, namely, that the world would be a better place if terrorism, racism, and other horrors simply disappeared overnight. I can’t imagine anyone brooking a serious disagreement. If I could get rid of terrorism by snapping my fingers, I would. That, of course, is not how war works. Caplan explains that the costs are immediate and horrible while the benefits are far later and extremely uncertain. Too frequently, the future benefits are merely wished for, and belligerents don’t always plan for what happens the day after they win the war. Caplan makes this point with reference to one of the bloodthirsty characters in Game of Thrones:

“He has no master plan to bring great good from a great evil. Instead, he has a master plan to do great evil, motivated by vague wishes to do great good. Proverbially, however, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

The same criticism applies, he argues, to American leaders who weren’t sure what would happen next after overthrowing Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gadafi. How Evil Are Politicians? does what Caplan has done so well over the years: challenge our wishful thinking and pleasant fictions with calm, cool-headed analysis and an insistence on comparing what we hope for to what we can reasonably expect—and, therefore, it offers wise counsel: stop listening to demagogues.