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History of Political Idiots

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The word "political" now often means behaving like an idiot. A current example and the history of the words "political" and "idiot" might help us stop this madness.

"Political" now frequently describes seeking advantage for your favored part of the people, even if that harms the nation. As well as being simply wrong, this politics of parts, of serving special interests, is ultimately self-undermining. No part can thrive for long without a healthy whole.

Take the Republican Party's desire to increase Medicare's eligibility age.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein describes this as "a particularly dumb cut... disconnected from any coherent theory... It merely shifts costs."

Slate's Matt Yglesias says: "Moving a patient off the Medicare rolls and onto the private market... entails a massive increase in costs... an absurd means of saving the federal government money."

In The Wall Street Journal, Aaron Carroll notes "to save the federal government $5.7 billion, the rest of America has to cough up $11.4 billion. That makes no sense."

By some idiotic 'political' reasoning this dumb, incoherent, wasteful, absurd idea, is seen as a "political trophy" by some Republicans, who are willing to harm the country to 'win' concessions.

Klein, Yglesias and Carroll all suggest saner Medicare savings. Over at Scientific American I've also proposed a simpler change that could cut public and private health costs by perhaps $60 billion per year with zero impact on services. But none of these has 'political support,' which is a euphemism for not being backed by powerful special interests.

Politics was once understood to be about more than winning power and serving special interests. Aristotle said governments which "aim at the common advantage are correct and just... whereas those which aim only at the advantage of the rulers are deviant and unjust." America's founding documents define government's inalienable duties to include protecting the "public good" (Declaration of Independence) and promoting the "general welfare" (Constitution). And Lincoln didn't say "government of the people, by the people" for your part of the people.

Aristotle famously called humans "politikon zoon," which is typically taken to mean we are political animals, that seeking power is in our nature. A better translation, is that humans are animals of the city-state, the polis. The ancient Greeks believed living well took more than the success of your private interests; it required active engagement in the public good of the city-state. Our word idiot comes from this idea. Idios in Ancient Greek meant private, and only someone not in their right mind would choose to ignore the fact that all private interests depend on the public good. We are idiots if we ignore this, or vote for politicians that do.