P O L I T I C S
"It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once." -- David Hume
"The death of democracy is not likely to be assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment." -- Robert M. Hutchins
It's been said that diplomacy is the art of saying "nice doggie" till you can find a rock. If so, then politics is the art of using only one hand to pick a colleague's pocket because you're forced to use the other to shake his hand.
Less metaphorically, politics is the means of persuasion used when pure force is not permitted. Instead of coercion, you must convince by other means those with whom you share power to lend you their support for your plans.
Thus, the tools of the trade: the quid pro quo, the appeals to emotion, the use of misleading statistics, the clever sound bite, the focus group, the opinion poll, the stirring music, the noble profile, the rhetorical gimmicks of the trained lawyer, and--in these days when image is sold as reality--every trick of lighting, audio, makeup, props, and scripting that Hollywood has to offer. Whatever helps to convince others to lend their support to one's goals will be employed.
Like fire, politics is not in and of itself a bad thing. Politics limits the application of power by requiring that it be shared. It's a compromise between effectiveness and safety. As long as no one crosses the line separating "persuasion" from "lying," as long as politicians are held accountable for what they say and do, politics can accomplish the necessary things without putting too much power in any one person's hands.
But also like fire, when politics is misused, people get hurt. When a significant proportion of the governed and their watchdogs in the press condone the misuse of politics by those who govern, then the entire system corrupts. Without accountability to those from whom power is borrowed--the people--politicians have no incentive to stay on the truthful side of persuasion. They become an aristocracy of liars, a ruling class whose sole concern is not performance but privilege.
This is why the prevailing cynicism is not only wrong but dangerous to democracy. You may not care what some politician says or does today as long as you're OK... but what about tomorrow?
Or, as has been said since the days of Athens: You may not be interested in politics, but politicians are very much interested in you.
Over the years I've spent reading history and the great political works, observing governments and politicians in action, and looking for patterns among these things, I've come to a few conclusions as to what works and why. I don't pretend these conclusions are novel, or that they are guaranteed to be correct, or that my statement of them is perfect. Like any human, my understanding is always going to be incomplete and flawed to some degree. And my ability to communicate is dependent in part on your ability and willingness to understand.
Still, I think these notions are substantially correct, to the best of my current ability to understand the world around me. At the very least, the ideas underlying them deserve consideration. If these essays do nothing more than provoke some thought, then they're successful.
Why Democracy Works
There's no such thing as "the wisdom of crowds." A crowd is a group of people one rock short of being a mob.
Democracy works, not because groups are collectively any wiser than one supposedly smart public official, but because when individual citizens are wrong they can't do as much damage as a single all-powerful government official whose decisions affect millions. Diffusing power by allowing and expecting individual citizens to solve their own problems restricts the unpleasant consequences of bad decisions to those who made those decisions. This direct correlation--if you foul up, you suffer; if you do right, you get the credit--provides a highly persuasive incentive to do right that a powerful but distant bureaucrat may not feel.
This is why the right to freely associate with those whom we choose is one of the most important of all rights. It's how individuals solve problems that are too big for one person, but not so big that a Cabinet-level agency or ministry is required or effective.
"You May Not" vs. "You Must"
Laws of the preventive form "you may not do X" work better than laws of the coercive form "you must do Y." Individuals are creative; if they are prevented from applying their resources to some reasonable goal X through one means considered unethical, they can still succeed in achieving X by applying their resources through some other means that is ethical.
If, on the other hand, they must apply their resources to some specific purpose Y forced upon them by an external authority, then the use of those resources is denied to them. At that point, it doesn't matter how creative individuals or groups may be; the redirection of their resources will make some worthwhile goals impossible to attain.
In general, then--because the more private individuals who enjoy the means by which to be creative, the more public good results--governments should refrain from telling citizens what they must do. By all means, governments should be able to encourage particular behaviors through incentives and delegitimize others as is truly necessary. But forcing certain behaviors short-circuits the creativity that leads to real, long-term solutions.
Note that this distinction is basically the difference between the forms of law known as "common law" and "civil law." The former, as it developed in Anglo-Saxon culture, took the view that anything not prohibited was permitted. The latter approach, especially in its "Napoleonic code" form, held that anything not expressly permitted was prohibited.
The clear victory of the common law over the civil law serves as support for the argument that "you may not" laws are to be preferred over "you must" laws. Though too much of either is a Bad Thing, the common law is demonstrably more advantageous to a society.
The Proper Focus of "Rights"
Focusing entirely on individual rights doesn't work. That way lies the anarchy of self-indulgence. Nor does focusing on social order above all work; that is the path to stagnation. The balance point that works best is "family rights."
Individuals are accountable to their families, but free to act as they see fit within those expectations. Assigning the obligation and opportunity of social control to this level of society provides effective restraints on foolish or wrong behavior by those who know an individual best: his or her family. This provides enough of the social order necessary to transmit virtue to subsequent generations, but not so much order that liberty and creativity--the "why" and "how" of social improvement--are stifled.
On Foreign Relations
Given that the United States is not only the demonstrated best example of democratic capitalism that has ever existed on the planet, and that it has never shown any serious signs of aggressive colonialism or imperialism (quite the contrary, despite the Spanish-American War), the unwillingness of some of its leaders to say "We exercise great influence in the world and that's OK" is bizarre. Do these people believe that they represent a governing system worthy of emulation or don't they?
Their timidity not only provides zero incentive for developing nations to embrace the ethics that made the U.S. great (and that's a phrase I don't use lightly), it actually encourages the remaining predator nations to prey on any neighbors who might try to emulate the Western model of liberty under law. Why not take advantage of weakness when the one supposed "superpower" is too worried about having a bad word said about it in international circles to act?
Thankfully, the 1990s are now behind us, but their lesson should not be forgotten. Both the U.S. and the world are better off when every nation adopts the simple but effective "Horton model" of international relations: Say only what you mean, and mean everything you say.
We would also profit by following the principles for cooperation observed by Robert Axelrod in his groundbreaking studies in the Evolution of Cooperation:
One of the best books explaining modern political forces is The Vision of the Anointed by Dr. Thomas Sowell. From his roots as an economist, Dr. Sowell has distinguished himself in a long career of solid scholarship, sound thinking, and clear writing. He outdoes himself here.
Enjoy The Vision of the Anointed.
Liberalism and Communism
"What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven." -- Friedrich Hölderlin
"Idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem." -- John Galsworthy
"The selfish wish to govern is often mistaken for a holy zeal in the cause of humanity." -- Elbert Hubbard
In its best form, liberalism calls for individuals to strive toward changing themselves and the world around them for the better. This impulse toward personal improvement isn't just nice; it's a social necessity. Human nature being what it is, without something pushing us toward the good we backslide toward the bad. Conservatives who fulminate against liberalism as an unalloyed evil are thus speaking just as unthinkingly as any liberal who sniffs reflexively at conservatism as a useless or even harmful social impulse.
Like any ideology, however, liberalism has a weakness. In particular, liberalism fails when its perfective impulse is untempered by the recognition that human goodness must be voluntary to be real. To put it another way, you cannot be virtuous with someone else's resources.
In its mild form, failed liberalism becomes nagging. Like an overly-protective nanny, it must be content with fussing over a myriad of minor flaws. As long as liberalism is an impulse of individuals, who because they do not have the power to coerce can only try to persuade others to voluntarily change, it's worth putting up with this annoyance. The benefit from doing so is the acceptance throughout society that we all have an obligation to work hard to try to be better persons.
But when liberalism's perfective impulse is backed by state power, when it is no longer individual but institutional, it becomes dangerous. Instead of having to rely on demonstrable reality to persuade individuals to voluntarily do better, statist liberals can simply require that citizens conform to the liberal perception of "goodness," in whatever form they believe that takes.
The danger of power is that it insulates the wielder from reality. The less powerful a person is, the more he lives according the whims of nature and his fellow man. The more powerful a person is, the more he can shield himself from anything unpleasant.
For most people, this only means protection from physical or perhaps emotional discomfort. But a few people are far more dangerous, because power allows them to hide from uncomfortable ideas. And when these persons hold the power of national government, they are dangerous in the extreme because they are insulated from the real-world effects of applying their false theories. Power means never having to confront one's ideological failures.
Never has this been demonstrated more conclusively than by the application of Karl Marx's communist theory.
The view usually summed up as "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs" sounds nice. In a world where humans are perfectly selfless, no one would try to keep or use more than he needs, and no one who needs anything would want for it. There is only one obstacle to achieving such a utopia: humanity.
For one thing, who decides? Who gets to decide what you need, or what you can and should contribute? If certain persons are chosen to decide the needs and abilities of all others, who decides for them their needs? Do they decide for themselves? If so, how is that any different from an oligarchy which skips the moral preening? Marx and Engels never addressed this. For them it was axiomatic that certain enlightened individuals were better fit than others to govern--not because their fellow citizens voluntarily recognized their superior qualities, but due to inherent sensibilities which the common masses lacked. Putting such persons in charge seemed much more efficient--more scientific--than democracy, which foolishly trusted the wisdom of the coarse masses. Communism would waste no time on such follies as "the consent of the governed"; it would impose fairness directly and immediately.
When the application of this theory failed, the results were horrifying. But when it succeeded, the results were even worse.
The failed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics demonstrated hypocrisy on a national scale and the state-subsidized murder of millions to hide that hypocrisy. The Soviet autocrats called each other "Comrade" but wielded absolute power. They pretended to be simple members of the proletariat, but gave the commands that sent vast numbers of their fellow workers to the gulags... or made citizens "disappear" with a bullet in the back of the head. The pride of Russian leaders that prevented admitting the ongoing failure to achieve Marx and Lenin's vision of perfect classlessness led to distortions to shield untruths to hide lies. And everyone knew it, leading to widespread cynicism and resignation to the power of lies told at gunpoint.
It is sobering to consider that this state of affairs could have gone on indefinitely. Without an outside force proving on a daily basis that "it doesn't have to be this way," throwing the gasoline of reality on the still-smoldering embers of Russian pride, the popular anger that consumed the socialist state would never have ignited. Soviet socialism would not have died on its own--it needed democratic capitalism to shut down its life-support. The great shame is that it took seventy years of repression and death to do it. (It's also shameful that some Western academicians still teach otherwise.)
But as bad as socialism's failure proved to be in the Soviet Union and its satellite states such as Cuba, the success in China and Cambodia of socialism's Marxian inheritor, communism, proved more terrible. There, human nature itself was bludgeoned into submission to Marx's theory of perfection through classlessness. Anything that was perceived by the grim, merciless mobs of Maoists or Khmer Rouge to be beyond the needs or abilities of the proletariat was destroyed. Books were suppressed as subversive. Art unrelated to the glorification of the state was condemned as unproductive. Religion was banned as dangerous superstition. Travel and communication were restricted as unnecessary. Cities were razed and their populations were herded into the fields where control was easier. Millions of people died, victims of agricultural policies based on preserving a theory rather than supporting human life. Even thought was frowned upon--the ideal communist simply performed the function he innately recognized as necessary. To a chilling extent, the Chinese realized the fullness of Marx's vision.
In the end, Marx's theory did far more harm when its application succeeded than when it failed. Those Soviets who labored under socialism only lost their freedom and their lives. The Chinese who endured communism at its height lost their humanity.
That is the ultimate reality of "fairness liberalism" yoked to absolute state power: the victory of ideology over reality at the expense of humanity. It ought to be instructive to those who believe they have a mission to impose their notions of fairness on all others.
Leading by example is the wiser course. It's not as satisfying to impatient glory-hounds; it may not even succeed... but a decent liberal society created by force is a contradiction in terms.
Goodness must be voluntary, or it isn't good. Accepting that truth means accepting that various forms of social inequality will always exist. This will be hard for some persons.
But making everyone starve to death equally because it is "fair" is harder.
The Goals of Communism
A recent conversation about free markets (and why, though impossible to achieve in the real world, we would do better to move toward them) led me to recall what lies in the opposite direction.
The following--of which an objective observer will hear ominous echoes in the public demands of one major U.S. political party--is taken from from The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, first published in England in 1848, as translated by Samuel Moore, and edited by Friedrich Engels.
These measures will, of course, be different in different countries. Nevertheless, in the most advanced countries the following will be pretty generally applicable: 1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes. 2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. 3. Abolition of all right of inheritance. 4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. 5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the state by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly. 6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state. 7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan. 8. Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, espcially for agriculture. 9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the population over the country. 10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of child factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.
Bennett, James T. and DiLorenzo, Thomas J. -- Official Lies: How Washington Misleads Us, Groom Books, 1992. So you think Washington, D.C. is taking your money and using it to maintain its privileges of power while lying to you about its actions, but you're not sure if the facts support that concern? Then you need this book. Orwell described the power that comes from controlling information, but not until today's technology has it been so easy that even a nominally democratic government could do it. This book names names (and numbers), allowing you to decide for yourself--and without bias toward the Right or the Left--if your tax dollars are being spent appropriately.
Bovard, James -- Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty, St. Martin's Griffin, 1995. The Wall Street Journal called this book an "encyclopedia of modern government abuse." The Los Angeles Daily News referred to it as a "catalog of petty tyrannies." The Washington Times described it as "a virtually bottomless pit of government incompetence, dishonesty, or outright repression at all levels." They're all right. While no reasonable person thinks that anarchy or outright socialism would be an improvement, this book does the dirty but necessary work of cataloguing the thousand-and-one abuses of U.S. citizens by their own government. Sobering stuff.
Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln -- Decision in Philadelphia, Ballantine, 1993. The story of the 1787 Constitutional Convention at which the U.S. Constitution was hammered out. Useful for understanding what has been lost since then, as well as for pointing out where we should go.
De Tocqueville, Alexis -- Democracy in America, HarperPerennial, 1988. The classic work on American social and political life in the mid-1800s, kept relevant to today's question of "who rules?" by its insights into why our national laws were formed as they were.
Gingrich, Newt -- Window of Opportunity, Baen Books, 1987. Before the Republican from Georgia was elected to the Speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives, he had conceived and created a blueprint for nothing less than the restoration of (as he sees them) the traditional American virtues of optimism, perseverance, creativity, courage, enthusiasm, and personal responsibility. They're all found in this book, along with plans for making them happen. Interesting reading for Gingrich fans and bashers alike.
Hamilton, A., Madison, J., and Jay, J. -- The Federalist Papers, Mentor, 1961. One-half of the most important set of documents describing the reasoning behind the U.S. Constitution. These letters presented the case for a strong federal system; their power and energy was one of the deciding factors in the ratification of the U.S. system of government in the form that brought us to our current state. Absolute must reading for any student of political science.
Hayek, Friedrich A. -- The Road to Serfdom, University of Chicago Press, 1976. Recently republished in a fiftieth-anniversary edition, this classic work on the dangers of the central-planning mentality is as timely and cogent as ever. Arguing with skill, unwavering determination, and a calm courtesy rarely demonstrated by those who disagree with him, Hayek spells out exactly why the socialists were and always will be wrong.
Heinlein, Robert A. -- Take Back Your Government!, Baen Books, 1992. Originally written in 1946, Jerry Pournelle in his Introduction describes this book as Heinlein's love affair with democracy. And that does seem to sum up this work, in that you want to lavish your time and care on the object of your desire. Heinlein's love of democratic self-government shines throughout this collection of practical advice on making democracy work.
Ketcham, Ralph, ed. -- The Anti-Federalist Papers, Mentor, 1986. The other one-half of the founding documents of the U.S. Constitution. The strong Federalist Alexander Hamilton was confident that the federal apparatus he helped to construct could never become so strong as to threaten individual liberty, but others were not so sanguine. These must-read documents explain why, and suggest that, while a strong Federal system may have been necessary to assure the survival of the Union (in a way the Articles of Confederation were not), that strength could in time grow into tyranny.
Lane, Rose Wilder -- The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle Against Authority, Fox & Wilkes, 1993. A little-known classic of freedom by the granddaughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder (the author of Little House on the Prairie). It traces the history of individual liberty from Ur and Bablylon to America, and is brutal in its evisceration of the "planned economies" as inimical to liberty. A completely remarkable book.
Olasky, Marvin -- The Tragedy of American Compassion, Regnery, 1992. For some years now, America has taken one road down the path to helping "those less fortunate." Given the results, it would seem a different path would work better... and this book describes that path, proving that "conservative compassion" is no oxymoron. Solid statistics and examples that are typical--not exceptions--make this one worth having by anyone who suspects that we can do better than a welfare state.
Town Hall The main site that leads to other conservative Web sites.
Heritage Foundation one of the best conservative think tanks.
The Official Cato Institute Homepage a public policy organization with a libertarian focus.
The Media Research Center the single best source for examining the media's liberal bias. Opinions aren't even necessary; the members of the 90 percent Democratic press corps indict themselves. Read how here.
C-SPAN the best televised resource for watching how the U.S. government actually operates.
The Ronald Reagan Home Page not just a shrine; this site debunks many of the myths and lies told about President Reagan and the 1980s in America. Solid (sourced) data, spun with trademark Reagan optimism.
Study for the Citizenship Test the questions asked of a person wishing to be granted U.S. citizenship. Try taking the Multiple Choice Written Quiz--how well would you do?
Manifesto of the Communist Party see for yourself.
1844 EP manuscripts Marx's great work of faux economics. Again, read it and decide for yourself.
Marx and Engels' Writings on-line versions of the works of Marx and Engels.