Libertarian History/Philosophy

What Vox Thinks Tech Nerds Don't Understand About Politics

Mostly that reflexive distrust of it shows you need a smug handholding "explainer."


Amazing "just the facts" primer for tech nerds about what everyone really needs to understand about politics, from David Roberts at Vox, the site dedicated to helping you "understand the news and the world around you. It treats serious topics seriously, candidly shepherding people through complex topics…"

Headline is: "Tech nerds are smart. But they can't seem to get their heads around politics."

What dumb techies need to understand about the complex topic of politics, from Roberts, summarized and quoted: 

politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory…. And it's a shame, because if tech nerds want to change the world — as they say with numbing frequency that they do — they need to figure out politics, the same way they're figuring out solar power or artificial intelligence, in a ground-up, no-preconceptions kind of way…

No preconceptions! And what is the troubling, so-obviously-wrong-I-don't-need-to-say-why preconception too many techies start with?

a distaste for government and politics. Sometimes this shades over into ideological libertarianism (see:Peter Thiel, who wants to build a floating libertarian city), but often it's just a sense that government is big, bloated, slow-moving, and inefficient, that politicians are dimwits and panderers, and that real progress comes from private innovation, not government mandates. None of which is facially unreasonable.

It's not only not facially unreasonable, it's vitally important when thinking about politics and imposing political solutions.

Yet Roberts' primer goes on to largely pretend that point was never mentioned or needs to be considered with grave seriousness.

What he goes on to discuss instead actually is all interesting, and here are bits and pieces of it so you can follow what Roberts thinks is all-important for someone to know about politics, apparently obviating any actual complaints or even knowledge about how government actually works, as opposed to the choice process in politics:

The key thing to understand about independents is that they generally vote like partisans….

If the ne plus ultra of rational thinking is switching between parties, splitting votes from election to election, then there are very few rational voters in America. (You can decide for yourself how plausible that seems.)

….the most myth-encrusted phenomenon in US politics is the "moderate." The popular conception of moderates is that they gravitate toward the political center, splitting the difference between the mainstream positions of the two parties.

If that's a moderate, then America doesn't have many of those either. In fact, the relative prevalence of moderates in popular polling is almost certainly a statistical artifact…..More engaged voters will tend to follow the lead and adopt the positions of party leaders…A voter with deeply informed, mildly center-left positions will code as "more partisan" than a moderate who has ill-informed positions that are all over the map, but that doesn't mean the moderate is more centrist or more rational.

Third, in practical coalitional politics, the "center" will tend to be shaped not by rational thinking but by money and power. If there is any space left for bipartisanship in US politics, it is around measures that benefit corporate elites.

Sure. What any of that has to do to deny either a vague or precise libertarian, anti-government position on the part of techies or anyone is unclear. In fact, that third point seems a strong point in favor of a reflexive dislike for politics or political solutions.

But the above is all just preface to his real point: that Republicans are dumber than Democrats, driven by quasi-racist identity politics, and that that is preventing the obviously-right global warming solution of a carbon tax.

Roberts further thinks the techies he's critiquing don't understand, "While it may be true that government cannot force major innovations, as [Elon] Musk and [Tim] Urban [the author of the Wait But Why website and targeted victim of Roberts' long, patient explanation of why he's so mistaken] agree, it is still very much the case that government can help or hinder innovation."

Yes, and the "hinder" part is a lot more on the mind of many techies and libertarians, which may be unbalanced in Roberts' mind, but it's an important reality that complicates Roberts' smug explainer about why being disgusted with politics means you don't get politics. He also thinks its a given that the anti-political techie who cares about global warming "should look with horror on the paltry resources the federal government devotes to" clean energy research. (See Ronald Bailey here at Reason for a little wider perspective on government money and clean energy.)

I get that Roberts thinks global warming is a huge problem that he can't imagine ameliorating through anything less than a carbon tax, and that he might, even rightfully, think that that is such a vital issue that nothing else at all about politics matters. In which case the piece should have been framed as "what techies don't understand about why we don't have a carbon tax," a more limited argument.

As it is, his (pretty long) handholding explanation of what techies don't get about politics ignores a lot of relevant considerations, ones perhaps more relevant than analysis of "independents" and "moderates" and how ignorant Republicans are or "the complicated web of historical, economic, and demographic trends that have shaped American public life" that he insists silly techies must get a better grasp of.

Roberts thinks there is nothing worth saying about, or any complications in politics raised by, things like whether government efforts and government spending equal intended accomplishments, or whether resources funneled through the state might get wasted, or whether public or private incentives work better for any given goal, or the insights of public choice about how we can actually expect government to operate.

Certainly no ethical issues at all involved in using institutionalized force for achieving goals cross Roberts' technocratic radar screen at all. What would that have to do with politics?

Knowing he's arguing against people doubtful about politics in the first place, it's the height of technocratic managerial hubris to believe that the information and arguments he presents here are going to straighten out those techies pretty little heads about politics.

Roberts wants you to believe ignoring all the considerations above is being truly sophisticated and "getting" politics.

The very fact that Roberts and the managerial/technocrat/Democratic Party class he and Vox speak for believe that quite sincerely is indeed an important fact about politics to remember. I daresay that techies with doubts and misgivings about politics already know that though, even if only inchoately.

Jesse Walker had a smart look at another manifestation of this elite D.C. attitude, those whose "political preferences are objectively valuable goals that are beyond politics, even as they apparently require a political wizard to enact them."