Activism, Politics, recent

In Defense of Political Hypocrisy

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has come under fire for not paying staffers the $15 minimum wage he promotes—and for using the private health-care system he often criticizes as immoral. Similar scorn is being hurled at environmentalist-minded celebrities who recently traveled to a Google climate-change conference via private jets, and even yachts. I am far from being ideologically aligned with Sanders or most Hollywood stars. But I will use the occasion to make a broader point about those who insist we all practice what we preach politically. Simply put: It’s petty to weaponize the spectacle of political hypocrisy to score points and avoid taking the other side seriously. As George Orwell put it in his essay about Rudyard Kipling, “a humanitarian is always a hypocrite”—since his or her standard of living is dependent on practices that he or she deems criminal. But that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore their arguments.

The first and most obvious problem with targeting a political opponent’s hypocrisy is that the practice always is applied selectively. Libertarians—and I’m including myself—sometimes scoff casually at the upper-class socialist who condemns capitalism while benefiting from the many innovations and luxuries that capitalism made possible. But those same libertarians often will fail to acknowledge that they benefit from public education, subsidies and infrastructure whose scope (or even, in some cases, very existence) they oppose. In his 2016 bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance pointed out a species of this phenomenon he observed in poor Appalachian communities, where strident conservatives preached against the vices of government reliance while collecting welfare benefits and remaining perpetually unemployed.

If this kind of hypocrisy can be taken as a fatal flaw in regard to any argument, then surely all have sinned and none can judge. Everyone with political beliefs benefits from systems that they oppose in some way. But just because a libertarian or conservative benefits from public programs doesn’t give critics license to dismiss their ideas about why those programs may be inefficient, ineffective or unjust. By the same token, just because Bernie Sanders is a millionaire who flies first class and does his fundraising using software developed by Silicon Valley billionaires doesn’t mean his criticisms of market failures and social injustice aren’t worth considering.

Moreover, the demand that activists practice what they preach in all cases serves to impose a special moral burden on those who rouse themselves to the improvement of society. In some limited cases, such as with philosophers who presume to describe universal truths, this burden is legitimately imposed. (Voltaire, for instance, threw out his principles and advocated for censorship when Rousseau publicly criticized him; and this fact deserves to be highlighted in the historical record.) But these rare exceptions aside, nobody has any special obligation to society by dint of their viewpoint. Not even a politician. A democratic socialist who thinks the government ought to raise taxes isn’t a hypocrite for limiting his or her tax remittances to the legal rate. Just as a libertarian isn’t morally required to take a private toll road to get from point A to point B instead of a public highway. The classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek benefited from Medicare, a government program he opposed in principle, when he came to the United States in the mid-’70s—and he wasn’t wrong to do so. And whatever you think of Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate message, he isn’t obligated to renounce his use of jets, limos and mansions.

One’s political ideology generally is a view of how all in society should behave—not just oneself. This often makes it literally impossible for someone to practice what they preach because they can’t control others. They have no choice but to live in and interact with society as it is, not as they wished it to be—and there’s nothing wrong with them doing so.

It’s not hard to think of modern instances of political hypocrisy that truly are morally outrageous—such as with a sex scandal involving a socially conservative Republican or ultra-woke Democrat. Nor is it out of bounds for the media to report on instances of apparent hypocrisy that reveal deception, hubris, ignorance or meanness—such as when a politician who publicly promotes the virtues of kindness and empathy is revealed to behave tyrannically among his or her staff. But these examples typically tend to involve the nature of a politician or public figure’s interpersonal relationships. Humans, being social creatures, always will judge such matters in a special way, as we view the way we treat those around us as a window into a person’s true character.

But in the modern political context, the definition of hypocrisy has greatly expanded to envelop a much broader group of reasonable people who are pursuing their own legitimate interests and advocating sincerely-held ideals within circumstances that they didn’t create. Raising the bar for what actually constitutes problematic hypocrisy would go a long way toward improving political discourse—because we’d spend less time skewering others for fictional moral lapses, and more time grappling with the actual issues that separate us.


Christian Barnard is a Young Voices contributor and an education policy analyst at a DC-based think-tank. His work has been featured in USA Today, Reason magazine and The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @CBarnard33.

Featured image: Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Leonardo DiCaprio at the Our Ocean Conference, Washington, D.C., 2016




  1. This article conflates apples and oranges.

    People who oppose Social Security are often told that they are hypocrites unless they refuse to take the payments. But not taking the payments would not be opting out, because such a person is still forced to pay INTO the system. If we were truly allowed to opt out by not paying in OR taking payments, then it would be more hypocritical to oppose the program but still participate.

    Similarly, paying taxes to fund public schools is not optional, and leaves many who would prefer alternatives unable to afford them.

    By contrast, there is no forced participation in private jet travel to “climate” conventions, nor is Bernie Sanders forced to pay low wages. These actions are more rightly criticized as hypocrisy.

  2. Counselling the consumption of water while imbibing wine is as old as humankind. Pointing out the inconsistencies of such behaviour is as old as humankind, too.

  3. As George Orwell put it in his essay about Rudyard Kipling, “a humanitarian is always a hypocrite”

    Orwell didn’t say humanitarians are justified being hypocrites - he was pointing out a flaw. Hypocrisy may not obviate the need to respond to a point, but it certainly does raise a perfectly reasonable question - if the point is legitimate, why is it that the advocates of the point can’t live it?

  4. If it’s not hypocrisy for an eco-zealot to take a private jet because his wife wants to, then nothing is hypocrisy.

  5. The issue isn’t disregarding the issues.

    Few notes:

    1. Moralizing, sermonizing, etc.- as in, aggressive moralizing- is undermined by “do as I say, not as I do”
    2. The hypocrisy in this case revolves around the nature of environmental activism. Consider the Green New Deal. It contained, among its provisions, fostering rail everywhere. It is reasonable to assume attendees agreed. Yet they did not take rail. One of two things is the case:

    a) They are not to give up air travel, only the commons- and that rubs against the idea of equality before the law and general exercise of liberty
    b) They are too ignorant to be preaching to people about using rail instead of air travel, because the reason rail is not a dominant form of travel is implicitly recognized by their not choosing to use it.

    -I want to elaborate on this one. I live in PDX, we have very good bus coverage downtown. Our bus routing needs considerable work. You pay based on the number of zones you cross. Because buses did not make enough money, they gerrymandered zones to increase the revenue made off travelers, and bundled routes to ensure a full bus. This means you are paying more than gas and parking would cost in many instances to turn a 20 minute car ride into a 2 hour commute- each way. This further penalizes those who can’t afford a car- a captive audience- while stealing 3.5 hours out of their day. Utilizing such systems would demonstrate a lack of ignorance of such systems, failing to use such systems demonstrates that they frankly don’t care what the problems with them are. Make the system work for the people, and the people will use it.

    Same with pay. An unwillingness to pay a $15 wage indicates that Sanders knows it will render his campaign non-competitive. That means he knows it will render the entire American economy non-competitive, despite his rhetoric, and is a concession his pie in the sky plans hurt the working class.

    Private jets et al have an insane carbon footprint. Fly mass, take the train, or take a car.

  6. Your arguments in favor of Sanders paying less than $15/hour are arguments that apply against the concept of a $15/hour minimum wage in general. Arguments that Sanders vigorously opposes.

    That’s like saying that it’s not hypocritical for gun-banning zealot David Hogg to own guns because guns are necessary for self-defense.

    Pretending that the only alternative to private jet travel is a sailboat is even more ludicrous.

    I do not believe you’re arguing in good faith.

  7. If hypocrisy is a manifestation of the fact that a particular idea is unworkable, then pointing out that hypocrisy is certainly a legitimate part of that debate. I.E. you don’t live up to your ideals because you know they aren’t workable in real life.

    It’s actually the hypocrisies that are more a product of human weakness that have the least political matters. When a politician cheats on this wife, it doesn’t prove that not cheating on your wife is impossible. It just proves that that particular person is an asshole.

    But if your debating school busing and all the people in favor send their kids to $40k/year private school…then maybe you have a point that their hypocrisy has political significance.

  8. What is wrong with video conferencing?

  9. “benefit from public education, subsidies and infrastructure”

    You mean the infrastructure and public schools we pay taxes for?

    I do not know what “subsidies” you are speaking about. I pay for my own life.

  10. @The Hang Nail
    I cannot agree with your point about Bernie Sanders. The argument in favor of raising the minimum wage is not “let’s all agree to be more generous at the same time, so that none gets a competitive advantage paying less!”. The actual argument ostensibly made by those who support this inane idea is that it is inhumane and undignified to pay less than the number they pull out of their sleeve. Regardless how you look at it, Bernie Sanders is a hypocrite: in the best case scenario he is willing to pay less than what he trumpets to be the minimum humane wage in order to remain competitive - which means that fundamentally he is animated by the very reasoning he condemns the free market capitalism and he does not believe what he preaches. Being prepared to treat other people inhumanely, either to gain or to preserve competitive parity (at least) is what he stands against. It is either inhumane to pay his staff less than $15/hour, or it is not. If it is not, he should never advocate for more than he pays. You can say that Sanders is not a hypocrite only in one sense: he is likely to promote that policy if elected, on the one hand, and he does pay the current minimum wage and is not currently breaking the law. In my view, he remains a swine even if you could count on him to drive the US into the Socialist downspiral if given the opportunity.

  11. I do expect people to practice what they preach where practical. Intentionally limiting one’s carbon footprint is a good idea for climate hawks. War mongers shouldn’t be draft dodgers. And so on. So ya, Bernie should pay staffers $15, AOC does.

  12. Indeed, market solutions cannot compete against state-provided ones where the buyers are coerced to purchase the public option regardless of their preference for something else.
    Hypocricy doesn’t need defending, it needs people to stop being hypocrites. When you rail against something you use and love, then maybe it’s not as bad as your rants suggest.

  13. This essay is filled with logical fallacies and assumptions.

    1. The above quote is an “everyone does it” argument. That’s not cogent. Everyone has surely sinned at some point for something; that doesn’t mean we can’t judge, nor does it mean that therefore the sin is ok. Everyone lies; that doesn’t mean lying is ok. Nor does it mean that all lying is to be considered the same, as the author seems to think for hypocrisy. This brings me to my second point.

    2. The author is setting up false contradictions and strawman arguments. No one is saying that you can’t benefit from anything you criticize. I can criticize the way hospitals are run and benefit from the hospital.

    Furthermore, some hypocrisy is, well, less rank than other types.

    The rank hypocrisy is the type that goes, “Thus with thee, not with me.” In other words, it’s hypocrisy that is morally objectionable because the person is insisting on standards for others they won’t apply to themselves. They don’t say, “I shouldn’t cheat on my wife; I am morally wrong for doing so.” That is a person of weak moral fiber, sure, but not a hypocrite. The hypocrite says, “You should go to jail/be fired/your life should be destroyed the second you cheat on your wife; everyone should–except for me. I should sleep with my wife as much as I like. Except if I’m caught.”

    Sanders wants everyone to have a $15 minimum wage. Then he himself doesn’t pay it. Paying the wage is his choice. He decided he didn’t have the capital to do so in the hours he needed. So he paid less. In other words, Sanders demands of every one else to pay workers $15/hour regardless of use or capital - except for him. That is a hypocrite.

    Why is this important? One can be a hypocrite and still enact positive change. But not in these types of cases. That’s because Sanders is demanding actions of others that he is not willing to impose on himself. And that means either his idea itself is utterly unworkable and/or his idea is not the actual purpose of his argument and he doesn’t care how workable it is or is not. And if the idea is not the actual purpose, but is instead a Trojan Horse, then at the very least, I should be wary of it.

    Your examples are of those who benefit from an already-existing structure, and therefore if there is hypocrisy, it does very little harm. For instance, I might think public schools in general need an overhaul, but still my kids benefit from it, or I can’t afford anything else. It’s not hypocritical for me to send my kids there. I am not demanding other people don’t send their kids there, and yet I do. I am saying the institution needs an upgrading, I can still be actively working toward that, and I would like to be an agent for change; yet it also has positive qualities and while the institution is there, I will make use of it.

    Your example of using a road that is federal is also wrong–the libertarian is not asking others to use private roads, and then using a public road himself. Instead, he/she is merely using an already-existent road, paying tolls for its upkeep, while wanting to be an agent for change. Furthermore, there isn’t another option–you have to take federal roads if you want to go anywhere. So this is a moot or disingenuous argument. It would be hypocritical if they refused to go on private roads because they were slightly more inconvenient and chose public because they were more efficient–and then said everyone needed to use private.

    As far as climate change–this is clear hypocrisy. The adherents of radical policy change for climate change state that this is a world wide crisis and armegeddon is immanent. If they really believed that, they would do their share. For instance, they would take public transportation instead of cars whenever possible (eg unlike Alexandria Ocasio cortez, who took Ubera as opposed to the subway because she mysteriously 'had to"). They would use public planes, not private jets. And so on. The fact that they demand others change when they themselves won’t even do small manageable changes on the ground, is proof that they don’t really believe what they’re saying and/or their ideas are unworkable (they can’t even do it themselves).

    This is what rank hypocrisy is, in short—evidence, through your actions, that you don’t believe in your own argument, and are using it, instead, for some other goal (usually either power acquisition, or as cover for your own sins). For instance, if I firmly believed that acts of small kindnesses make the world a better place, I would commit acts of small kindnesses; if I didn’t do that, then obviously I don’t believe acts of kindness are important or do-able. If Sanders believed it was possible and critical for everyone to be paid $15/hour, he would do just that. The truth is he doesn’t believe it and/or it’s not workable and he knows it.

  14. Actions speak louder than words. Or, as Jordan Peterson puts it, belief isn’t when you say you believe in something, it is when you act as if you do. Someone who is hypocritical in their political beliefs is admitting to you that they don’t believe them.

    I’ve seen the argument the author makes before. It comes from people who are called out on the hypocrisy of their beliefs. My response is that I act on my political, economic, and social beliefs perfectly because I think everyone should maximize their standard of living and pursue their own self-interest. That’s a really easy standard for me to live up to. If you can’t live up to your own standard, it should be a clue your standard is unworkable. Don’t blame others around you for your own failure: forcing them to do the hard thing you demand won’t make it any easier for you, it will just spread the misery.

  15. One example where hypocrisy works in tandem with bad ideas is in education. Many amongst the cosmopolitan liberal and political elites advocate for progressive education, whilst sending their own children to private boarding schools with very traditional teaching methodologies. Even those who genuinely believe that education needs further progressive reform, are operating on a faulty availability heuristic, in that in many ways they are rebelling against a stifling, traditional, knowledge-intensive teaching methodology that they themselves experienced, that is exceedingly rare in the modern context.

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