Useless politicians, glorious politics

This first appeared at Bogpaper in March of this year. I’m reprinting it here firstly because there’s a graph floating around the net showing the loss of faith in government in recent decades, and secondly because I haven’t felt like writing anything for a week or so but I want to keep the blog ticking over. Apologies if you’ve read it before; if you haven’t, enjoy.

Our democracy is in crisis. No wait. Our democracy is in crisis! That’s better. (An exclamation point really puts you in the mood for reading about a crisis, I find.) A spectre is haunting democracy. The spectre of selfies. If only Churchill were here now. He’d know what to do. Oh, yes!

That’s right, top ranking politicians giving themselves selfies (I’m pretty sure that’s the right phrasing) while ordinary hard-working folk stand around them open mouthed, is not only a problem – it’s a symptom. A symptom of a problem. A problem that is symptomatic of a blood-curdling threat to our very way of life. Maybe even a blood-curdling threat to our very way of life! Ordinary hard-working folk are losing faith in politicians. Oh. My. God.

To be serious, the story (or rather the worry) is this. Politicians are doing lots of trivial, silly stuff these days; they are, to a man, non-entities, totally unable to capture the imagination of the public. The voters are turned off by all this, their opinion of the political class is nosediving, and fewer and fewer are bothering to vote at all. What is needed, if our democracy is not to fall apart, is a new breed of politician – closely resembling a much older breed of politician – who can inspire the masses with displays of vigor; good sportsmanship; success in battle; raw sexual magnetism; athleticism; tales of derring-do, etc.

I got a bit carried away towards the end there, I admit. But this is a real problem as far as many people are concerned, and the solution they long for is a more heroic style of politician.

What should we make of all this? Is democracy in danger? While it might, prima facie, appear that way, that would be a faulty conclusion. Of course, in an ideal world there would be a total loss of faith in politicians, so all the allegedly troubling statistics (fewer than two thirds of the electorate vote in general elections, etc), are, in fact, merely a good start. But they are just that: merely a good start. The problem is that while there may be a growing disillusionment with politicians, the belief in politics itself is as strong as ever.

The common criticisms make this clear: our politicians aren’t smart enough to do this; they aren’t brave enough to do that; they don’t care enough to do the other. Which is to say, we need a better class of politicians – cleverer, braver, more compassionate. Our problems, whatever they may be, can and will be solved by politics as long as the “right men” are in charge. Or, at least, “better men” are in charge. And it’s always possible to find “better men”. That’s why we have elections, isn’t it?

So what is politics? What makes something a political issue? Nothing is inherently political, but absolutely anything can become a political issue – there just has to be enough interest in it. But it’s of the highest importance there not be unanimity of opinion on an issue. If there were, what would there be for politicians to do? They would be totally superfluous to requirements: if we would do a thing anyway, what would be the point of an order commanding us to do it? The ‘art’ of the politician consists in seeking out areas of disagreement and forcing non-unanimous decisions upon dissenting parties.

There are a number of points that could be made about this, to be sure, but let’s focus on the ‘practical’ aspect for those of a generally libertarian or classically liberal persuasion. The question is, What are the prospects for limited government? Imagine a disagreement over the use of a resource in a free market. I want to use X for one thing, you want to use it for another. How do we solve this conundrum? We say that whoever owns X gets to decide. If neither of us owns X, we can attempt to buy it (or be gifted it, win it, etc) from the current owner. If it’s currently unowned, whoever gets there first becomes the owner and can then decide what to do with X. In each case there is a definite answer.

But what if – and this might take quite an effort of imagination – instead of a free market, there was politics? In other words, what if how things are used was not a matter for their owners alone? Well, then things would be very different indeed. In politics there are no ‘right answers’. Everything is up for grabs, and every decision is an arbitrary decision. Perhaps “the common good” might be the yardstick in a given case. Perhaps the “greater good”; or the “public interest”; or the “will of the majority”. (Incidentally, as long as there is something to be ‘interpreted’, it’ll only ever be the interpreter’s voice we hear). It doesn’t matter. Unless ownership is absolute, there is literally no limit that can be put on government activity. For on what issue is there unanimity? On what issue can disagreement not occur? On what issue can disagreement not be manufactured to benefit interested parties? And as for “constitutions” as a break on the growth of government, as Anthony de Jasay points out, they are neither self-interpreting nor self-enforcing. They are, in his phrase, “a chastity belt, the key to which is always within easy reach”.

Politicians are not the problem, politics is.

Twitter @StrictlyLiberal

Google+ Rocco Bogpaper


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