Dec. 4, 2023

How to Win the Game of Politics | Thomas Sowell

Published May 12, 2023, 4:08 p.m. by Naomi Charles

politics is a game. It's not a game of chance, like roulette, but a game of strategy, like chess. And, like chess, the object is to checkmate the opponent's king.

In politics, the king is the voting public. The object of the game is to get a majority of the votes. That's how you win elections.

But votes are not always easy to get. Sometimes they have to be coaxed, cajoled, or even bribed out of people. That is why there are professional politicians. That is their job.

And, just as in chess, there are different strategies for winning the game of politics. Some are more direct, while others are more indirect.

Some try to win by persuasion, by appealing to the voters' better angels. They try to convince the voters that their policies are in the voters' best interests.

Others try to win by force, by using the power of the government to coerce the voters into doing what they want. This is the strategy of the left, which believes that the ends justify the means.

Still others try to win by manipulation, by playing on the voters' fears and prejudices. This is the strategy of the right, which relies on wedge issues to divide the electorate.

The best strategy, of course, is a combination of all three. But, in the final analysis, it is the votes that count. And that is why, in the end, the game of politics is a numbers game.

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Whoever called politics “the art of the possible”  must have had a strange idea of what is possible  

or a strange idea of politics, where the  impossible is one of the biggest vote-getters. 

People can get the possible on their own.  Politicians have to be able to offer the  

voters something that they cannot get on their  own. The impossible fills that bill perfectly. 

As a noted economist has pointed out, nothing  

“could prevent the California electorate from  simultaneously demanding low electricity prices  

and no new generating plants while using  ever increasing amounts of electricity.” 

You want the impossible? You got it. Politicians  don’t get elected by saying “No” to voters. 

Of course Californians also got electricity  blackouts and, in order to deal with the  

blackouts, a multi-billion dollar surplus  in the state’s treasury was turned into  

a multi-billion dollar deficit, followed by  cutbacks in various other government programs,  

followed by calls for higher taxes. You want the government to create  

more jobs for people when there is widespread  unemployment? It’s been done. During the Great  

Depression of the 1930s, the government employed  more young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps  

than there were in the Army. The money to pay  for all this had to come from somewhere—and  

that meant that there was less money left to  employ other people in the private sector.  

While jobs created by the government  may not have reduced total unemployment,  

these jobs increased votes for the administration,  which is the real bottom line in politics. 

Are you for “open space” laws forbidding building  

and also for “affordable housing”? Don’t  be discouraged by the fact that severe  

building restrictions have sent housing prices  sky-rocketing in community after community. 

It may be impossible to have “open space” laws  and “affordable housing” at the same time,  

but what are politicians there for, except  to figure out ways to give us the impossible? 

Palo Alto, California, where housing  prices nearly quadrupled in one decade  

after severe building restrictions were  imposed, also pioneered in laws mandating  

that each builder agree to sell a certain  percentage of any new housing “below market.” 

In other words, they combined “open space”  laws with “affordable housing.” Who says  

the impossible cannot be achieved? Of course this system can work only  

where just a fraction of the new  housing is sold “below market.”  

Moreover, the market price of housing was raised  so far above what it was by building restrictions  

that even “below market” prices for condominiums  in Palo Alto can run to $300,000 or $400,000. 

This is hardly “affordable housing” for people  on modest incomes. Only 7 percent of Palo Alto’s  

police, for example, live in Palo Alto—probably  older cops who bought their homes long ago. 

But none of that matters politically. What  matters is that people in Palo Alto can feel  

good about themselves, by being for both  “open space” and “affordable housing.”  

Happy voters are what get politicians re-elected. 

The big political crusade today is for  “affordable” medical care through the government.  

No one believes that government is just  going to be more efficient, and thereby  

have lower costs that will be reflected in lower  prices for medications and medical treatment. 

It might seem as if adding the costs of  government bureaucracies to the costs of  

medications and medical treatment would make  it impossible for the total costs to go down.  

But again, the impossible  is no problem in politics. 

Many countries around the world already  have government-run medical care.  

People who get sick in these countries usually  wait much longer to get treatment, including  

months on waiting lists for surgery, often paying  in pain or debilitation, rather than in money. 

High-tech medical devices like MRIs are also  far less common in these countries than in  

the United States. With medical care as  with anything else, you can always get  

poorer quality at a lower price, though that  is no bargain, especially when you are sick. 

What you may have in mind are lower  prices with no reduction in quality.  

While that may be impossible, don’t expect  that fact to stop politicians from offering it,  

even if they can’t deliver.


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