Does Game Theory Explain Why Everyone’s Becoming More Libertarian About The War On Drugs?

Marijuana shops opened in Colorado this year, and the sky has not yet fallen. But the trend of former politicians denouncing failed drug policies has suddenly caught up to those still in office, and politicians both red and blue are now falling over themselves to sound more libertarian than the next guy.

Barack Obama – the sitting president of the United States – admits on the public record that he doesn’t think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. Chris Christie says “we will end the war on drugs,” and Rick Perry wants to move towards decriminalization. (Yes, that means the moderate/establishment wing, the evangelical wing, and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party are all now moving in this direction.) Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder wants to reduce drug-related sentencing, and conservatives at CPAC are arguing that it’s actually conservative to put fewer people in prison for drugs so we can reduce government spending on prisons, reduce government intrusion in our personal lives, and reduce crime by stopping the inevitable networking of non-violent drug dealers that leaves them no job options when they get out besides the violent skills they picked up in prison.

All of this is music to my ears.

The cynic would say these politicians are just responding to reality and the shifting opinions of the electorate. It’s true that public polling on marijuana legalization has approached and fully crossed the 50% threshold in recent years. It’s true that tight budgets and bloated prisons, combined with renewed small-government fervor, are incentivizing enough common sense to begin to shift power away from the “prison industrial complex.”

These kinds of explanations are likely enough, but I wonder if that’s the whole picture. After all, it’s easy to find polls on other topics that haven’t created such a shift in the rhetoric of both major parties. So here is my pet theory: Perhaps it has something to do with the growing threat of libertarian politics.

What threat, you may say? Didn’t Gary Johnson only get about 1% of the vote in 2012? Where is the Libertarian Party coming close to winning even statewide elections anywhere? My argument is not that they are winning (outside the Republican Party, that is), but that they are picking up enough votes that both Democrats and Republicans are starting to worry about them.

In this month’s special election for FL-13, the Libertarian candidate picked up 4.8% of the vote in what appears to be the first time they fielded a candidate there. I haven’t done an extensive analysis, but there appear to be multiple districts in 2012 where the Libertarian candidate out-performed the difference between the two major parties, potentially tipping races in both directions.

Most game theory political analysis focuses on how the shifting whims of the electorate affects the two major parties (in this case, since the electorate is allegedly becoming “more liberal,” pitting claims that this means the Republican Party is doomed against more boring claims that the party will simply become more liberal as well. But perhaps that analysis is too simple, and there’s a third player here. Perhaps a growing libertarian presence is also influencing both parties to become more libertarian to reduce the risk of those candidates spoiling races for either of them.

At least that’s what almost seems to be happening with the War on Drugs.

Why NPR Is My Favorite News Source

NPR is doing their spring fundraising thing, which means I do my usual thing where I admit that I get utility from their reporting but not enough to give them money because I probably wouldn’t listen to them if I wasn’t driving to work and the marginal utility of any one of my dozens of news sources is not really that high and anyway I’m pretty sure my tax dollars support them somehow so I have no incentive to stop being a free rider.

This year, however, I changed my mind. I’ve long recognized that even though many would consider me conservative I much prefer NPR to Fox News, but I generally just thought of it in terms of outright bias and overall focus. Thinking in the framework of my recent post on the politics of outrage, though, I realized explicitly why I prefer NPR so much:

NPR almost never peddles outrage!

Yes, they still have bias like every other form of media, but rarely does the bias imply bad faith on the part of those who disagree. Rarely does it suggest that opposing tribes are evil incarnate. I’ve always thought their random pieces on economic developments in Mauritania (or whatever) were more interesting than the latest tirade about a third-rate Obama staffer’s obscene tweets (or whatever), but I’d never acknowledged the value of the outrage difference – a difference that is generally maintained even when NPR is presenting their angles on more relevant and boring topics like mainstream US political news.*

I realized that I consider non-outrage news both very rare and very important, and I am very interested in ensuring that this sort of news sticks around. So I pledged. It was an amount smaller than their smallest suggested amount, so I’m not looking for congratulations. Nor am I looking forward to the inevitable (and presumably just as calming) slew of snail mail petitions now that they have my address.

But I did want to express my appreciation for a news source that reliably provides more helpful context than unhelpful outrage about current events. I will save the discussion about the political philosophy implications of profit-seeking vs. non-profit media corporations for another day.

*Note: my overall impression of NPR may be disproportionately skewed by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, the programs on during my typical commute.

The Politics of Outrage

So much of political coverage is about generating outrage against other tribes. This outrage is in high demand and easily supplied, but it ultimately leads to a market failure. It satisfies our short-term desire for confirmation bias, but by causing us to think other tribes are more evil than they actually are, it reduces our long-term ability to win people over to our side and make the world a better place.

The Details: What Outrage Looks Like

Whether it’s Democrats against Republicans, Republicans against Democrats, or libertarians against the government, time and energy is consistently diverted from arguing the merits of one’s position to the weaker but more enticing strategy of simply portraying the people who hold the opposing position as embodiments of evil.

Sometimes the outrage focuses on the Evil Opponent’s words as indicators of how “out of touch” the Evil Opponent is (47% are takers! You didn’t build that!). Sometimes the outrage focuses on the Evil Opponent’s actions as indicators of the Evil Opponent’s lack of moral fortitude or love for America (He cut a kid’s hair in college! He “bowed” to a leader of a country I can’t find on a map!). Sometimes the outrage manifests as a remarkable fascination in the details of the Evil Opponent’s personal life (Zimmermann’s boxing! Now he’s not boxing!) Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the person said or did as merely mentioning his or her name is enough to foment outrage from the appropriate base (Kochs! Obama! Limbaugh! Obama! Palin! Fluke! Obama!)

The mainstream media uses outrage whenever possible, but the most frequent peddlers include websites such as TheBlaze, HotAir, MotherJones, and ThinkProgress. You can generally tell how high HotAir has their Outrage Meter by how many times they mention Reid on their home page (at the moment, it’s 4, accompanied by words like liar, pain, and un-American.) You can generally tell how high ThinkProgress has their Outrage Meter by how many pictures of old white men they have on theirs (at the moment, only 2, but I’ve seen Republican men in every single above-the-fold photograph before). Outrage meters tend to spike as we approach elections, as it becomes more important than usual to expose Evil Opponents to try to prevent them from gaining power.

The Economics: Why Outrage Persists

The proliferation of such outrage can be explained with basic economics. The supply of outrage-inducing material is very high, and the cost of production is lower than it has ever been. No one is perfect; the worst 10% of things any given individual has ever done or said could probably be thrown into the outrage machine to generate results. Additionally, the worst 10% of people in any given political group generate even larger supplies of words and actions that can be thrown into the outrage machine to smear the entire group. Furthermore, thanks to social media, cellphones, YouTube, and more, technology now enables us to discover and promote a greater proportion of the worst things individuals or groups say or do than ever before.

The demand for outrage-inducing material is also very high. People are simply more interested in clicking, reading, and sharing news that makes them excited and angry than news that makes them calm and happy.

When so many people want something that is so easy to supply, we should not be surprised to see so much of it. Websites publish outrageous posts for the same reason politicians create more commercials slinging mud at their opponents than dusting themselves off – it might not change many minds, but it’s more effective at involving people who already have their minds made up.

These incentives create tensions for content creators who don’t necessarily want to get sucked into the outrage machine. My most popular post of all time is also probably the most outrage-inducing post I’ve ever written. I could probably generate more page views by cranking up the Outrage Meter more often, but if I believe outrageous page views ultimately create negative utility, why would I want to maximize that?

The Problems: Why Outrage Is Harmful

One problem with outrage is that, while it may be very effective at reinforcing your side’s existing biases about the other side, it is extremely ineffective at winning people over to your side. While we love to throw outrage at them, we are very good at dismissing outrage against us as irrelevant and actually turning it into another reason to be outraged at them (Oh there they go again bringing up Seamus / Benghazi / whatever).

Sometimes the outrage is so great it produces visible backlash (think 2012’s “legitimate rape“), but even then the accusing side tends to overplay their hand, allowing the defending side to spend less time rationalizing their weakness and more time accusing the other side of exploiting it.

To be sure, there are injustices worthy of outrage, but the worthy outrageous things that don’t outrage us are just as revealing of our biases as the less worthy things that do. I had to stop and ask myself why the TSA terrors and NSA surveillance have outraged me far more than Michael Dunn’s murder and essential acquittal.

Am I more concerned about laws that merely take away liberties than about laws that enable racists to kill people they stereotype as dangerous and get away with it? And is it just a coincidence that my outrage seems to correlate less with the level of injustice and more with how closely the victims match my ethnicity and income level?

The biggest problem with an abundance of outrage is that over time it gives you a very unbalanced impression of your political opponents. You begin to assume your opponents are always acting from malicious intentions rather than good ones, which hampers your ability to understand them or admit errors in your own thinking.

Liberals think virtually all conservatives are racist compassionless homophobes. Conservatives think virtually all liberals are socialist Marxist environmentalists. Libertarians think virtually all government employees are corrupt, power-hungry statists.

A consequence of assuming your opponents are acting in bad faith more than they really are is that it makes you more gullible to believing partially-true (or downright false) stories about something outrageous they did. That’s how anti-government crusaders got outraged about voluntary chicken nuggets and liberals got outraged about a fabricated anti-science memo – they already believed it was something those people were probably doing anyway.

The more boring but more persistent consequence is that it decreases your overall ability to get along with members of the other tribes. If you believe the worst 10% of an opposing tribe is representative of the whole tribe, you’ve probably spent more time reading about them on the Internet than you’ve actually spent with them. But once you believe that, why bother trying to spend time with them?

At times I’ve despaired about whether the United States is getting too big to govern. I see pro-Russian and pro-European factions fighting in Ukraine and it makes me wonder… are we always destined to split off into warring tribes? I don’t know, but if I can get more people to recognize outrage and reduce their demand for it, I’ll feel like I’ve done something to help.