Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus, research fellows at the CATO Institute, have written an article entitled Politics Makes Us Worse. Below I shall comment on each of the thirteen paragraphs of which their article consists. Powell and Burrus are making many valid points, but they spoil their take by over-generalisation, which is the cardinal defect underlying the libertarian presumption against politics. In that way, the arguments displayed in Politics Makes Us Worse are almost a mini primer containing many of the central misconceptions of politics entertained in libertarian circles.
First, it is in order to comment on the title the authors have chosen: Politics Makes Us Worse. It can be inevitable, and in some cases even useful, to introduce phrases that come over more strongly than the wider message they are intended to support - such as, say, in a socially well-understood and accepted exaggeration (like "Americans are great people.")
Such is the case with the title of my present post - I do not believe that politics makes us better; rather I think politics can make us better, but it also can make us worse. Moreover, politics can have functions and effects that do not relate to the issue of people becoming better or worse. Hence, in the text I qualify the title's bait.
The authors do not make any such qualification whatsoever. I am therefore entitled to take the statement - politics makes us worse - as an absolute. And precisely therein lies the difficulty with their position, which is representative of the attitude maintained by a large number of libertarians. In the below text, the authors' phrasings are
indented and completely in italics,
followed underneath by my comment (without emphasis):
Increasing the sphere of politics leads to bad policy and increased vice.
By and large, the freer a country, the more likely it is to allow political engagement by any citizen interested in such activity, increasing the sphere of politics compared to a closed access society where the privilege of participating in politics is reserved to a small ruling elite. It appears that the absence (as in Mabutos's Kongo) or the retraction (as in Nazi Germany) of such freedom leads to increased vice, rather than the other way around.
An interesting special case might be provided by a class of countries that do not have a democratic political order, yet enjoy the status of favourites in the eyes of many libertarians, such as Hong Kong or Singapore. To begin with, the absence of a Western-type democratic political order does not mean that politics, with all its pluses and cons, is not happening in such countries. The relevant processes may be less familiar to the Westerner, naturally more opaque, or it may be the case that in order for the political goings-on to become more transparent to an observer, she must seek intimate and enduring participation in the social life of the respective countries.
Furthermore, I strongly suspect that Hong Kong and Singapore have benefited from other people having done politics in their stead - namely the British people, who exported practices and institutions of a modern civil society to these two places. Excellent conditions for commercial advancement (enabled by the imported model of a modern Western civil society) combined with an impoverished population eager to take advantage of the opportunities to grow materially more comfortable, the people of Hong Kong and Singapore may have had low demand for democratic politics for a number of decades. They certainly had strong governments whose political orientation and political decisions were decisive for the economic success of both places. Indubitably, politics has made Hong Kong and Singapore better (places to live in).
Even if we try to ignore it, politics influences much of our world. For those who do pay attention, politics invariably leads in newspapers and on TV news and gets discussed, or shouted about, everywhere people gather. Politics can weigh heavily in forging friendships, choosing enemies, and coloring who we respect.
What the authors want their readers to focus on is a part of politics fraught with problems and unpleasant challenges: the divisiveness in politics, the ways in which politics creates division, and enhances or exploits it.
What the authors do not see is that politics is the only way in which we can hope to deal with issues that drive us apart.
What the authors do not see is that we cannot ignore politics - understood as dealing with the inevitable fundamental disagreements that the social order of a viable community must come to grips with.
Politics communicates, resolves or attenuates strife resulting from the manifold sources of significant disagreement among human beings. Bashing politics in total is like rejecting tragedy and drama in human affairs as a needless luxury willfully created by the bored and playful.
Of course, try as we may, we cannot ignore politics - it is part of the human condition. Of course, politics influences much of our world - which is full of dissent and potential for oppression and violence that needs to be kept under control. The compromises of politics will tend to be imperfect, because the more fundamental disagreements among human beings will not go away, when our political arrangements help us to avoid the crassest, bloodiest, and especially destructive forms of battle.
It’s not difficult to understand why politics plays such a central role in our lives: political decision-making increasingly determines so much of what we do and how we’re permitted to do it. We vote on what our children will learn in school and how they will be taught. We vote on what people are allowed to drink, smoke, and eat. We vote on which people are allowed to marry those they love. In such crucial life decisions, as well as countless others, we have given politics a substantial impact on the direction of our lives. No wonder it’s so important to so many people.
Does political decision-making really increasingly determine so much of what we do and how we're permitted to do it? Can we do less and are we more regimented and patronised than in 1965, in 1912, or in 1860? By what metric?
Is it not the case that we are living in zones of reduced freedom and other zones of increased freedom, many of which may not be easily netted, if this is possible at all? I suppose, as drivers we may be considerably more regulated today than in 1912 - but is this not largely an appropriate response to mass transportation, and a large contribution to personal freedom? Have the regulations to which mass transportation has led been brutally imposed upon us by political decisionmaking, or is it not rather the case that countless institutions of a free society, from the legal world, to the media, to the many events and practices that make up our political order have allowed millions of us to exercise influence on the process by which such regulations get formed?
What do we gain in denying a role for politics in improving our lives?
To be continued.