Situational Enemies

Mill hypothesized that political participation might have certain benefits, including making us more open-minded and more concerned with one another’s welfare. The empirical evidence shows that he was mostly wrong. Voters tend to vote altruistically, it appears, but deliberation, joining or identifying as a member of a party, and other forms of participation tend to make us in mean and nasty assholes.

The final chapter of Against Democracy is  a short note called “Civic Enemies”.  Two excerpts from an early draft:

Politics tends to make us hate each other, even when it shouldn’t. We tend to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. We tend to view political debate not as reasonable disputes about how to best achieve our shared aims, but as a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

…The problem with politics is even deeper than that. It’s not merely that politics makes us see each other as enemies when it shouldn’t. Rather, politics tends to put us in genuinely adversarial relationships. It makes us genuine enemies with one another. The structure of democratic politics actually gives me reason to despise most of my politically active fellow citizens—even, I’ll argue, most of the citizens who share my political beliefs. On Election Day, as my neighbors vote, they become my enemies, and I become theirs.

On one common definition of “enemy,” an enemy is a person who hates me, who consciously wishes me ill and consciously works toward my harm. Only a minority people who participate in politics qualify as my enemies in this sense. As we saw in chapter two, most voters vote for what they perceive to be the national interest. They genuinely want to help, and sincerely believe they’re voting in ways that make things better, not worse, for their fellow citizens. Voters’ motives seem pure and good. A few of my fellow citizens want to use the political process to harm me or people like me. But most don’t think that way. They might dislike me for having views contrary to theirs, but they don’t vote in ways that they believe will hurt me.

However, there are two other senses in which politics makes us enemies. First, politics tends to make us what I will call “situational enemies”. Politics is a zero-sum game with winners and losers. It creates adversarial relationships in which we have grounds to oppose one another and undermine each others’ interests, though we have no intrinsic reason to dislike one another. Second, there’s a sense in which most of my fellow citizens do want to hurt me, even if they wouldn’t describe themselves as such. They want to do things that will in fact harm my children and me, even though they want to help. Political decisions are high-stakes, but in the real world, most people involved in politics fail to make these decisions with a proper degree of care and competence. They expose me to undue risk of harm. Just as I have grounds for hating a negligent drunk driver who puts my children and me in harm’s way, I have grounds for hating most of my fellow citizens whenever they engage in politics. Or so I will argue.

Situational Enemies

There are scenarios in which we become each other’s enemies, even though we have no intrinsic reason to dislike one another.

Consider philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature,” as described in The Leviathan. The state of nature is a hypothetical scenario in which human beings live outside of society and civilization. Hobbes argues that because people in the state of nature lack any mechanisms to enforce contracts or to keep predators in check, they would not trust each other. He argues that without even a basic level of mutual trust, the state of nature would become a war of all against all. Life under these conditions, he concludes, would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[i] In the state of nature, Hobbes thinks, we become each other’s enemies, though in better situations, we would be at peace, or even be friends.

Or, imagine you and I are both condemned criminals in ancient Rome. Neither one of us has done anything morally wrong. Instead, imagine we’ve been condemned for things that shouldn’t be crimes: you refused to worship Jupiter, while I helped slaves escape their masters. The barbaric Romans, ever thirsty for blood, make us fight to the death in a gladiatorial arena.

As we pick up our cudgels, we become enemies. Here, I have nothing inherently against you. Outside of the arena, I might even like you, or be your friend or partner. But inside the arena, we’re forced into conflict. It’s you or me. We want each other dead. You become (what we might call) my situational enemy: someone I have reason to oppose and attack, not because of who you are or what you’ve done, but simply because our situation pits us against each other.

The problem is each of these scenarios is that we’re trapped in an involuntary, high-stakes, zero-sum game. In economics, a zero-sum game is a situation or an interaction in which a person can win only if other people lose, and a person can win only to the degree that others lose.

For example, poker is a common zero-sum game. I can make only as much money as the other players at the table lose. But poker is far nicer zero-sum game than politics. Whenever I’ve played poker, I’ve played as a volunteer, not a conscript. I don’t resent the other players, even when I lose money, because I chose to gamble.

With political decisions, I’m a conscript, not a volunteer. While I can choose not to play poker, I can’t, say, choose not to fund the NSA or the invasion of Iraq or the bombing of Syria or the criminalization of pot. I don’t want whoever the current president is when you read this to be my boss, but I can’t just choose not to have him or her as my boss, at least, not without uprooting my family and fleeing the country at great personal expense.

In the next few sections, I argue that the following features of the democratic political decision-making process tend to make us situational enemies:

  1. Political decisions involve a constrained set of options. In politics, there are usually only a handful of viable choices.
  2. Political decisions are monopolistic: everyone has to accept the same decision.
  3. Political decisions are imposed involuntarily.

Because political decisions are monopolistic, constrained, and imposed through violence, the political decision-making process tends to be a system of conflict.

[I then explain 1-3 at some length and argue that politics often causes us to become “situational enemies”. Afterwards, I turn to asking what we should think about our fellow citizens in light of their incompetence:]

A Toast to the Death of the Incompetent King

There’s yet another way democracy makes us enemies. In previous chapters, we examined at great length much of the empirical research on the political brain. We discovered that most democratic citizens are Hobbits and Hooligans. Most Hobbits are potential Hooligans. Most voters are not merely ignorant, but misinformed and irrational. Ignorance and irrationality are resilient. People resist attempts to reach consensus or to learn more. They dig in their heels. Attempts to eradicate ignorance and irrational often makes these problems even worse. Political participation, including democratic deliberation, is more likely to corrupt and stultify us than to ennoble and enlighten us.

These Hobbits and Hooligans wield political power over me. It turns they have altruistic intentions when they wield this power. But, at the same time, they wield that power in a highly incompetent way. This, I argue, gives me some reason to hate them, to regard them as my enemies and I as theirs.

To see why, recall the story of King Carl the Incompetent from chapter six. Carl wants to make his subjects’ lives go better. But he doesn’t take proper care to know what he’s doing. He doesn’t have the information he needs, and he doesn’t reason in a reliable way about what little information he has.

Carl means well, but he’s dangerous. The following hold true of him:

  1. While he doesn’t desire to hurt his subjects under that description, he often desires to do things that will in fact hurt them.
  2. While he doesn’t desire to impose undue risk upon his subjects under that description, he often desires to act in ways that in fact impose undue risk.
  3. Carl has ample evidence that he is incompetent, but he doesn’t pay much attention to that evidence, nor does he process the evidence that he is incompetent in a rational way. Accordingly, he doesn’t take any steps to reduce his incompetence or protect his subjects from his incompetence.

In light of 1-3, Carl’s subjects have good reason to despise him. Almost every time Carl makes a decision, he imposes serious risk of harm upon his subjects. If the subjects are lucky, Carl will pick a decent or good policy. But even then, Carl doesn’t know what he’s doing. When he makes a good decision, it’s by accident. If the subjects are unlucky, Carl causes serious harm. He wields an incredible amount of power in an irresponsible way.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Carl’s subjects raise a glass at the pub and wish for the king’s early death. They might feel a bit bad about that. After all, Carl genuinely means well. Still, the subjects are right to see him as a threat to their, and their children’s, well-being.

In modern democracies, rather than having a one-headed incompetent king, we have a many-headed incompetent king. In a democracy, the incompetent, irresponsible ruler isn’t some bearded fellow in a castle, but almost everyone else I see. If Carl’s irresponsible behavior gives his subjects grounds to hate him, I some have reason to hate my fellow citizens as well.

  • Jameson Graber

    I agree with these points, but I do wonder as I talk to others about politics: how many people would actually oppose King Carl? How many of them would end up saying, “Aw, he means well”? People who opposed him might end up seeming, well, elitist, since they couldn’t appreciate the natural charms of King Carl’s good intentions.


    “3. Carl has ample evidence that he is incompetent, but he doesn’t pay much
    attention to that evidence, nor does he process the evidence that he is
    incompetent in a rational way. Accordingly, he doesn’t take any steps to
    reduce his incompetence or protect his subjects from his incompetence.”

    I am not sure the Carl[s] of democracy are very aware of their incompetence, or the extent of their incompetence, because the opportunity to regard this evidence is slim. So, Once they make their decision in the voting booth, they do not know what is entailed by their vote. The Carls are doing something much more sinister: it is not that they have the evidence and do not know what to do with it, that is, they are helpless and know not otherwise, but rather they knowingly act negligently, recklessly when they cast their vote for they do not reasonably understand the implications of their decision and the effect it has on others, and yet proceed as if they do. If someone hands you a gun and gives you the opportunity to either shoot or refrain from shooting in the general direction of the dark wood in front of you. You do not know what is in the dark wood, so you can not know what you may be shooting at should you decide to shoot. If given this opportunity, one should not shoot.

  • Jeff Sylvester

    I’m having a discussion with a friend about this excerpt, and a little clarification would help. His issue is with characterizing politics as a “zero sum” game, when it really isn’t. I believe you understand this, but are describing the we are invited to participate in it.

    What I mean is, take your example of bombing of Syria. While this is presented as zero sum in that there we win or lose based on our support for the action, the truth is, it’s either good or bad for all of us, and whether we supported it or not, we’re all in this together. If it’s a bad decision to bomb Syria and we bomb anyway, we all lose, even those who feel like they “won”.

    So politics is really only a zero sum game in perception, where we draw up sides and adopt positions, but it’s not a zero sum game in truth because while we are facing off as enemy combatants, a person can “lose” but actually win (and likely not realize it) because we win or lose together.

    There are some policies with definite winners and losers (like if you decided to give all left handed people an extra $3,000 per year from the government, then left handed folks would be the winners and right handed folks the losers), but in the examples you gave such as our stance toward pot or bombing other countries, we are all in this together. Someone who forces a bad decision hasn’t really “won”.

    • Policy isn’t zero sum — politics is.

  • Pajser

    Yes, zero-sum is quetionable. Proponents of every policy believes the result will be positive sum. Even if one is skeptical about calculation what is good for others, in democracy, majority gets what they want. On the rough level of counting satisfied wants, the sum is positive. If one believes he can calculate benefit and harm objectively, again, the probability that sum is zero is – zero.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that political conflicts are not result of political frame organized by the system like democracy; it seems to me they are result of difference in individual ethics, which reveals itself independently of political system. The communists and libertarians have conflict of wants in democracy, dictatorship, and anarchy. Evidence is in fact that there are revolutions in dictatorships; dictator doesn’t organize political activity that requires deliberation. Yet, revolutions happen, and intensity of the conflict is greater than in democracy. I can think on some ways the rulers or culture can reduce political conflicts in society; for instance, making people addicted to drugs, or escapist forms of entertainment; but how could it be better that people think more about, say, professional sport and less about ethics? From my point of view, life in which human is focused on his small private world, without attempt to understand and improve real world, seems very sad and dehumanizing.

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