Politics is a grim business. True, a lot of good people want to improve the lives of their fellow citizens by entering public service either through elected office or by working for a government agency. But as much as we can laud the impulse to do good, we should not fall into the trap of admiring political leaders – particularly heads of State – simply for being who they are. The State, by its very nature, rewards humanity’s worst impulses. Additionally, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that everyone enters public service with good intentions. For these and other reasons, we should not further enable the power of the State by lending it our admiration.
By: J. Andrew Zalucky
This article first appeared at FEE.org
In our high school civics classes, we are often taught that government exists for the sake of benevolent public service. In preaching this, our schools do us a massive, Wilsonian disservice. Many of our greatest authors, from Mark Twain to Nathaniel Hawthorne, embody an anti-authoritarian tradition; one that was eager to point out the propensity of the powerful toward scapegoating, moral panics and State aggression. In talking about the Salem Witch Trials in The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne notes that
the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen—the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day stood in the inner circle round about the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived.
Those who hold power, especially within the State, are often the strongest and most brutal supporters of such deceptions. This is why Americans today often see their own political leadership defend things like the war on drugs, warrantless domestic surveillance, crony capitalism and the worst excesses of the war on terror. If we’re raised to keep political authority at arm’s length and recognize politics for what it is, people – including cops, soldiers, public employees, and average citizens – may be better equipped to think twice about a certain government edict. But if we like, revere, andadmire those in the highest reaches of power, we may give those people more leeway. While admiration of Adolf Hitler didn’t lead to the Holocaust on its own, the unrestrained reverence for his and the State’s authority lent moral grease to the wheels of the cattle cars.
Attaining Its Own Agenda
Because it holds the monopoly over physical violence and coercion, the State is able to legitimize atrocities under the guise of the “public good” (e.g. show trials to expunge “enemies of the people”). Of course the 17th-century magistrate was the loudest to applaud when yet another innocent soul had his or her neck broken – the magistrate had the most to gain. By exacerbating the already-existing divides among people, the State is able to portray itself as the indispensable mediator and protector of public order, even when it does the exact opposite.
Keep in mind that the relationship of the individual to the State is different from that of one individual to another. Things like trust, loyalty, and compassion cement relationships among individuals, creating the sphere we know as “private life” or “civil society.” But these bonds are difficult to replicate between the individual and the State.
If a resident of a particular town is thought of as strange, perhaps even wicked, other residents can peacefully ignore or shun that person, without using guns to “do something about it.” So long as no one infringes on the rights of others (where state intervention would actually be warranted), this is of little consequence. But if a large, powerful institution becomes involved, it may see this resident’s very existence as contrary to its interests. You may relish how the State uses its power when it does something you agree with. But what will you say when it turns its guns on you? Will it be “all for the greater good” then? Will you still be clutching your civics textbook then?
It’s not that some unique aura of evil exists within the halls of government. But as an institution, the State functions to serve (and resolve the conflict among) a set of interests, not a foundation of first principles. Still, many politically-minded people call for an expansive, intrusive central government that can influence (or even dictate) matters of economics, private life, and education – even though it’s the entity least qualified to manage any of these things.
Leave the Good People to Do Good Things
It reminds me of a great article in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf where, when referring to the expansion of executive power under Bush and Obama, he points out that “to an increasing degree, we’re counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils.” It’s one thing if the devil is your unfriendly neighbor or the coworker with a chip on his shoulder – it’s another when you give him official authority over your economic and social life, backed up by the threat of physical force.
For this reason, we should actually be glad that the admirable people (aka “best and brightest”) don’t attain political office. They’re better off starting businesses, inventing things, curing diseases, and writing great albums and books. The last place smart and creative people should be is in the grinding misery of the public sector. Again, there are certainly exceptions to the rule, when we’re lucky – but are you feeling lucky this year?