The Washington Post

Enlightenment on debt politics

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, both of New York University, take a pretty grim view of those entrusted with leadership. They come at the question of politics by wondering why we’re constantly barraged by revelations of lying, theft and other forms of just plain bad behavior — and sometimes murderous conduct — by leaders around the world. In their book, due out in September, they write: “The picture we paint will not be pretty. It will not strengthen hope for humankind’s benevolence and altruism.” But the benefit will be in learning “why politics works the way it does.”

Of course, our leaders’ posturing and bickering over the debt and their inability to see a way toward a compromise for the common good may not rise to the level of some horrors the authors explore. But the politics — and its failures — are remarkably the same.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith locate the driving force of all politics not in any ideal but in the self-interest of the person at the top. In our case, the person at the top ought to be viewed with diffusion: consider the persons at the top, that is, the self-interests of those in Congress and the White House who make the decisions that affect our lives.

“When addressing politics,” Bueno de Mesquita and Smith write, “we must accustom ourselves to think and speak about the actions and interest of specific, named leaders rather than thinking about and talking about fuzzy ideas like the national interest, the common good, and the general welfare. Once we think about what helps leaders to come to and stay in power, we will also begin to see how to fix politics. Politics, like all of life, is about individuals, each motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others.”

Yes, as they tell us, their perspective may be disheartening but it may also be true.

Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post. He is author of “Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Époque Paris” (Doubleday, 2014) and “The Kennedy Baby: The Loss that Transformed JFK” (Washington Post eBook, 2013).


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