Liberty, Libertarianism

There is no Second Law

The other night I was watching Burn Notice, my favorite spy show. Our long suffering protagonist Michael Westen had just found out that after he spent 7 long seasons trying to clear his name so he could work for the CIA again, after he finally was allowed back “in from the cold,” after he risked his life and the lives of his friends and family, the CIA has allied itself with a psychopathic former agent whom Michael has spent most of those 7 seasons trying to lock up.

Faced with that knowledge, Michael breaks and allies himself with the “bad guys” with whom he has been undercover all season. (We think it’s an alliance, though the series is not quite over yet, and there is always room to be surprised.) The plot details don’t really matter though. What matters is that, in his moment of realization, Michael says:

 …If they work with him they believe in nothing, and I believed. I believed from the first day of my training at the CIA. I thought all they stood for was right! Even after they burned me… I gave up everything, and I wasted my life for a lie.

As the guys at The Impossible HQ observed, Michael Westen knows how to “pretend to be 3 different people with 3 different backgrounds in order to gain entrance to a security zone where you can hack a computer, duplicate the files, erase your records, and treat a bullet wound while escaping from the roof.” Michael Westen knows a lot of stuff.

 But the thing he doesn’t know is the thing he most needs.

 Skwire’s First Law.

Accidentally invented by me on Facebook a while back, named by my co-blogger Steve Horwitz, and picked up–to my great diversion–by a crew of Facebook friends, Skwire’s law is simply stated thusly:

 Politicians are asshats.

Had Michael Westen kept that in mind, we’d have a shorter show, but he’d have a much happier life.

I’m driven to write a bit about Skwire’s First Law today because, like every other day, politicians are being asshats. And I want to talk about how Skwire’s law—though simply expressed—is not merely a sigh of exasperation, a political version of “boys will be boys.” It’s a manifesto condensed into three words.

Saying that politicians are asshats means that you acknowledge the deep truths of public choice theory. It means that even if the occasional politician supports a policy you like or gives a speech you admire, you know enough not to turn him or her into a hero. We can debate, as my friends and I have on Facebook, whether asshats become politicians or politicians become asshats. I don’t think that debate much matters, because I think both parts of it are true. Politics is a machine that turns good people and good ideas into bad ones, and turns bad people and bad ideas into worse ones. Politics is a system that attracts not only people who want to help, but people who want to control. And once those people—good or bad, helpful or controlling—are in the system, they use it to further their ends.

And that means that they will take money from people most of us wouldn’t shake hands with. And that means that they will tell us that they do not believe in spying on the American people or in a government that operates in secrecy, while they continue spying on the American people and locking up or hounding anyone who questions that secrecy. And that means they will tell us they want to help care for the helpless while they make it illegal for charities to feed the starving. And that means they will tell us they are deeply concerned about unemployment while they raise more and more barriers to entry-level jobs. And on and on.

None of this is accidental. None of this is a flaw in the system. This is how politics works. And this is why politicians are asshats.

But you shouldn’t despair. Skwire’s First Law is not about despair. Skwire’s First Law is about liberty.

Once you realize that politics works this way, once you realize that politicians are, in fact, asshats, you are free. You are free from the need to hope for, and look for, and blindly follow one particular political savior. You are free from having to make excuses when you are inevitably disappointed and betrayed. You are free from the need to rearrange your mental furniture to accommodate the brain-splitting torments of supporting a politician who wins the Nobel Peace Prize while implementing Drone warfare on civilians abroad and at home, or a politician who praises the free market while bailing out banking and corporate cronies because they are “too big to fail.”

When you have Skwire’s First Law—or when you have the much deeper and more complex understanding of Skwire’s First Law that you get when you read and think about public choice theory—you are free from all of that.

And once you are free, you realize that politics isn’t the solution to the things you see that are broken. Because it can’t be the solution. Because politicians are asshats. They are wasting your time and your money and your energy. They are allying you with people you hate and with causes you despise and with actions you would never condone.

Don’t wait around for them to save you or the things you think are important. Don’t think you’ve found the politician who can fix your world.

Politicians are asshats. You don’t have to be.

  • Knowledge Problem

    Excellent. Well said. Don’t forget the corollary, though: even if a politician has not yet engaged in asshattery, just wait.

  • Aeon Skoble


  • shemsky

    This is one of the best postings so far on this site.

    Skwire’s First Law. So simple, so true.

    Thank you, Sarah.

  • Pingback: Public Choice Theory: Skwire’s First Law | Knowledge Problem()

  • Brian Schmied

    A fundamental truth that should be a foundation part of every high school education.

  • j r

    Well said. Although, maybe “You don’t have to be” is the Second Law.

  • good_in_theory

    How is this insight unique to “politicians” and “politics”? There are tons of institutional contexts outside of government in which individuals maximize their own self-interest, while saying they’re doing something else, at the expense of others. “Politicians are asshats” is just ideological posturing. Bureaucrats are asshats. Managers are asshats. Family members can be asshats. Academics are asshats. Concentrated interests trump diffuse interests all over the place, not just in government.

    • awp

      Right, everyone is self interested.
      Politicians are more likely to claim to be serving the greater good.
      Politicians are more likely to be believed to be serving the greater good.
      Politicians have control of the guns.

    • Steve Massey

      The difference is that politicians are all asshats. Asshattery is their profession.

      • good_in_theory

        Doubtful. I see no reason to think that plenty of other positions aren’t characterized by hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement in general.

  • zjohn


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  • I agree with Mr. Problem: the law is stated too simply. Here is the more accurate version: Politicians are, or become, asshats.

  • Far be it from me to deny that politicians are asshats, but some places are better governed than others. It would be nice to be able to understand how it is that some asshats at some times and some places, in the teeth of the incentives that ensure they will be asshats, still manage to make relatively decent decisions. One worries that Skwire’s First Law breeds a sort of fatalism that facilitates rather than resists the asshattery of the asshats.

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