Gresham's Law of politics
On counterfeit currency, Teddy Roosevelt, and the need to throw truly crooked people out of office without hesitation
Gresham's Law holds that bad money chases out good, which is a compact way of saying that once convincing counterfeit currency enters circulation, people will hold on to their supplies of good money while circulating the fake money instead. Gresham's Law isn't just useful in economic thinking, it's also a useful heuristic for considering behavior in many other realms of human life.
■ If, for example, we permit bad people to enter public office and tolerate their presence, then we shouldn't be surprised if bad politicians end up chasing out the good. Teddy Roosevelt said that "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest."
■ The more we corrupt our own expectations of what officeholders ought to be, then the more we open the door to bad politicians chasing out the good. And indeed there are good politicians: To think otherwise is to exercise an unhealthy cynicism. Some are certainly wrong, and a few are sociopaths, but most are more or less cut from the same basic cloth as everyone else -- just with different motivations than those that send, say, a postal carrier or a dental hygienist off to work in the morning. But most people are good at heart, and that includes the people who enter politics.
■ But the corruption of voter expectations also happens when we persecute unnecessarily those who might be good at heart, but with whom we merely disagree. If life for the elected official is made so intolerable that no decent, self-respecting person would volunteer to run for an office, then we shouldn't be surprised if the ranks of our officeholders fill up with indecent people.
■ The over-personalization of partisan attacks is indecent. Protests held at people's homes are indecent. Speaking of our rivals and opponents as though they are sworn enemies in a blood feud is indecent. Naming staff members and revealing personal information with the obvious intent to stir up crowds to mob action is indecent (a violation prominently committed just today by an activist posing as a journalist).
■ There will always be bad people who will seek office, because bad people are often attracted to power. But from a systemic standpoint, voters need to have low tolerance for bad behavior by those they elect, and high expectations for how they themselves will respond when decent people are elected.
■ Not every policy disagreement is the result of someone's moral shortcoming. Compromise is not only inevitable, it is fundamentally necessary to a functioning democratic system. We shouldn't only expect to be disappointed by policy outcomes from time to time, we must insist on it: Nobody gets 100% of what they want. But our tolerance for outcomes we don't like should be balanced with an intolerance for crooked behavior. Bad officials shouldn't be allowed to chase out the good.