The Principal-Agent Problem, a Politicians Edition

This blog text is tagged "civil liberties" and about the "Freedom" in "Defence and Freedom". Some visitors think this is only a military blog and such topics are outside of its scope, but what's the point of defending freedom against foreign power if powers within have already taken it away?* Civil liberties topics are one of the 'big four' of this blog.

Stewart mocks the hypocrisy of some U.S. politician on domestic spying. I would embed the video, but it misbehaves (starts on its own et cetera), so feel free to watch it at this link.

Satire is a wonderful tool to expose such a hypocrisy, but normal news reports show it as well. All it takes to see it is to read between the lines or even only compare different news reports.
It was all-too obvious that German politicians reacted loudly to reports about espionage on them (such as for example on their phones), but created merely a faint response to reports about how their constituents were being spied on by a foreign country.

This is the classic principal-agent problem; the people can't do all by themselves as a group, so they delegate tasks to agents who then apply their own view of the world, their own preferences - and rarely do what's in the groups' best interest.

But this goes deeper; politicians have in my opinion two attitude problems:

(a) They think of themselves too highly.
This is a major obstacle to the addition or even only maintenance of safeties against governmental power abuse. National-level politicians don't think of themselves as a threat to our liberties, so why shackle themselves with rules?  A better question should be 'why would you even notice the limitations on your power if your actions are never outrageous enough to encounter said abuse-preventing limitations?'

This problem is especially evident in discussions about domestic spying and internet censorship. These naive politicians actually believe censorship is fine if they are in control, after all they're benevolent and the censorship was only meant against *insert bogeyman of the year here* any way.
NO, no censorship, period.
The same applies to domestic spying, surveillance and data retention efforts. The political plans in these directions are often as much unconstitutional as the canned censorship idea.

(b) They don't trust their constituents.
That's actually illogical, after all those untrustworthy people have chosen the politicians for high office in the first place, right?
This distrust is especially evident when it comes to discussions about plebiscites. Supposedly, we the people are perfectly capable of making a wise decision to vote for entire parties with entire political programs for a duration of four year full of unanticipated events, but we are too emotionally unstable and too easily manipulated when the vote is about one specific, published bill that's been discussed publicly for months.
And of course we're untrustworthy, as we're potentially criminals. I strongly doubt that the crime rate is lower among the general populace than among national-level politicians, though. We have seen enough scandals, including people serving in the federal Cabinet after being found guilty of crimes.
But the dangers, political extremism, lack of understanding of democracy - national-level politicians seem to see these problems only among the general population (and among the members of some party which never happens to be a ruling party on the federal level).

It would be nice if somehow our political culture would evolve beyond this attitude problem. This is unlikely to happen any time soon, though. The political elite is talking too much to itself and its own entourage. Political discussion TV shows are mere entertainment, using politics as pretext and politicians as easily available, free and already famous actors.
Nobody seemed to be able to hammer the idea that any censorship is wrong into the head of the minister who proposed internet censorship. Guess what? Said minister is as of now in command of our armed forces.

To propose censorships should equal instant political career suicide, but it wasn't. That, if nothing else, should be enough motivation for everyone to get more politically active and to push for improvements of the political system and the political culture.

*: For a somewhat humorous take on this, look here.


  1. Re "National-level politicians don't think of themselves as a threat to our liberties"
    I recall thinking during the worst excesses of the Bush admin, that it was odd that noone in the ruling party ever seemed bothered that every new power they were grabbing for the White House would eventually wind up in the hands of a Democrat, sooner or later. Now it has come to pass, and the latest inhabitant of the White House has given up none of those powers.

  2. You are 100% correct with your two points concerning politicians. However, I wouldn't limit it to politicians. Both points apply to all humans to a certain degree. Most of us generally think too highly of ourselves. But I think it is very interesting how your second point ("They don't trust their constituents") manifests itself in people of different political parties/persuasions and worldviews.

    Looking at liberterian vs. conservative vs. "liberal" attitudes in the USA, it's been my experience that liberterians are the most trusting since they generally want the fewest restrictions on personal freedoms by the govt. They "trust" people to generally do the right thing. At the other end of the spectrum are our "liberals" who really are anything but liberal in the old sense of the word. Liberals don't "trust" other people to behave correctly. This is evidenced by their desire to pass laws to 1) force people to do what they consider is the right thing (e.g., buy insurance whether you want to or not, not smoke, etc.) or 2) put artificial restrictions on non-criminals to keep them from ever possibly doing something illegal/wrong (e.g., outlawing guns). In general, liberals are a great example of thinking too highly of yourself (i.e., "I'm much smarter than everyone else") and of not trusting people in general (e.g., "the common people are not smart enough to make decisions for themselves and can't be trusted to behave").

    1. That's not the "old sense of the word", but pretty much what the rest of the world, sans maybe the Australians, think it means.

      I would characterise the political dipoles in the United States differently:
      One party wants to organise the country based in part on the idea of solidarity.
      The other party wants to provide a clean playing field for plutocrats.

      Read the militia acts which are almost as old as the U.S. constitution and you'll see that a mandate to buy something wasn't exactly an outrageous thing until political propaganda characterised it as such.

      About the ACA; the mandate in it is meant to defeat the adverse selection problem which inhibits all insurances and looks especially ugly in health insurances. Insurance theory doesn't exactly provide a way around this problem that is not in some way forceful, and the problems' consequences in health care were deemed intolerable in every developed country so far.

      Look, I know about the domestic political polarisation of the U.S., but my place is really the wrong one to bring forward years old simple talking points from those domestic battles. Especially when they touch on economics. Almost everything U.S. pols, pundits, activists and 'journalists' say on economics is BS in one way or another. Even highly acclaimed economist from the U.S. (Mankiw, Krugman et al) - while better by orders of magnitude - tend to omit important factors in order to support their partisan point.

    2. Another very interesting post, and I fully agree with the political attitude problems listed. Still, politicians are not aliens, they're human (at least I hope so), so I have to agree with Anonymous that this is not necessarily always limited to just politicians, but is part of human nature, and affects all of us to some degree.

      I think you just proved that by your reply, which clearly shows that your attitudes towards Americans falls under point 2, you don't trust them. All any of them are capable of is apparently producing "BS" that supports their "partisan points". (As opposed to, of course, the partisan points about ACA and the US political parties that you expressed in your reply...) Those were all just proven facts, right? :-)

    3. It doesn't really matter whether the problems are specific or general unless this means that we cannot counter them. I think we can counter them, but this requires that we don't tolerate this behaviour any more.

      The American debate about health insurance insulted economists world-wide with its stupidity and ignorance. A whole nation spent years debating one topic and still failed to grasp what econ students learn in the first ten minutes of lectures about insurance theory. Any foreign economist who has been exposed to it has a very good chance of being fed up with the debate.
      The remarks on parties were meant to balance out his remarks. My real prejudice against D & R is that both are corrupted by money.

  3. Thanks for your reply Sven. I don't think I will continue this line of debate, as I feel that it would probably just move ever further away from the point of your post.

    I agree that it would be nice if these attitude problems could be countered somehow, but like you, I don't see that happening anytime soon, unfortunately.