Friday, 16 October 2009

Awaiting "The Death of Politics"

A friend pointed me at an article by Karl Hess entitled The Death of Politics, originally published in Playboy 40 years ago.

Hess lived in a different world: it was only 7 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and war was raging in Vietnam. Many of the issues he covers — segregation, race riots, the threat of communism, the draft — may seem distant to the modern reader. Other issues — drugs, poverty, censorship, war, and the relationship between Big Government and Big Business — are at least as relevant today as they were then.

And then, as now, libertarianism was marginalised and misunderstood, despised by both ends of the political spectrum:
Libertarianism is rejected by the modern Left — which preaches individualism but practices collectivism. Capitalism is rejected by the modern Right — which preaches enterprise but practices protectionism.
But what is libertarianism? Is it as naive and immoral a philosophy as the mainstream would have us believe? Hess defines it thus:
Libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit: that all man's social actions should be voluntary: and that respect for every other man's similar and equal ownership of life and, by extension, the property and fruits of that life is the ethical basis of a humane and open society. In this view, the only — repeat, only — function of law or government is to provide the sort of self-defense against violence that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for himself....
This notion will appeal to many people who recognise that technological progress, not government intervention, is the source of our current prosperity and the key to our future happiness [1].

But how small a government can we get away with? Is the Rule of Law and defence of our borders sufficient? How far should governments go to preempt crime and war? Can libertarianism work in practice? Can it work today?

Hess was optimistic:
A laissez-faire world would liberate men. And it is in that sort of liberation that the most profound revolution of all may be just beginning to stir. It will not happen overnight, just as the lamps of rationalism were not quickly lighted and have not yet burned brightly. But it will happen — because it must happen.
But 40 years on, it's hard to see a path to Hess's utopia. Indeed, we seem to be heading in the other direction. Is this the will of the people? I confess that I am aware of no nation, past or present, that has conducted itself on truly libertarian lines. Should we infer that we are too savage to peacefully coexist without the iron fist of a monarch, or the guiding hand of a liberal elite. Are we too reluctant to think for ourselves; too eager to be led? Or have we been held back for centuries by those in power? Will future historians look back on the Libertarian Revolution, as we look back on the Scientific Revolution, and wonder how a transformation with such power to enrich the lives of billions was frustrated for so long?

Hess doesn't have all the answers, but he does provide a compelling case for the libertarian ethic, and a damning indictment of the political status quo.

Politics: the power of an elite exercised in the name of the masses

One of the first observations of Hess's article is that the traditional political parties, despite their differences, have more in common with each other than they do with libertarianism:
Political parties and politicians today — all parties and all politicians — question only the forms through which they will express their common belief in controlling the lives of others. Power, particularly majoritarian or collective power (i.e., the power of an elite exercised in the name of the masses), is the god of the modern liberal.

Can we live without this elite?

...the most vital question today about politics — not in politics — is the same sort of question that is plaguing Christianity. Superficially, the Christian question seems simply what kind of religion should be chosen. But basically, the question is whether any irrational or mystical forces are supportable, as a way to order society, in a world increasingly able and ready to be rational. The political version of the question may be stated this way: Will men continue to submit to rule by politics, which has always meant the power of some men over other men, or are we ready to go it alone socially, in communities of voluntarism, in a world more economic and cultural than political, just as so many now are prepared to go it alone metaphysically in a world more of reason than religion?

State Capitalism

Contrary to the mainstream view, ours is not a capitalist society — at least, not a pure one. A bewildering blend of subsidies and regulations distort the free market, ostensibly for 'the greater good', but more often to the benefit of special interests. In particular, those special interests with enough money to hire lobbyists.

This problem is not new. As Hess put it,

Big business supports a form of state capitalism in which government and big business act as partners ...

The Left's attack on corporate capitalism is, when examined, an attack on economic forms possible only in collusion between authoritarian government and bureaucratized, nonentrepreneurial business.

He cited the television networks as an example:
The big businessmen who operate the major broadcast networks are not known for suggesting, as a laissez-faire concept would insist, that competition for channels and audiences be wide open and unregulated. As a consequence, of course, the networks get all the government control that they deserve, accepting it in good cheer because, even if censored, they are also protected from competition.

It is notable, also, that one of the most fierce denunciations of pay TV (which, under capitalism, should be a conceptual commonplace) came not from the Daily Worker but from the Reader's Digest, that supposed bastion of conservatism.
In fact, Hess claimed,
Television networks are fantastically advantaged by FCC licensing, which prevents upstarts from entering a field where big old-timers have been established.
The auto industry receives the biggest subsidy of all through the highway program on which it prospers, but for which it surely does not pay a fair share. Airlines are subsidized and so protected that newcomers can't even try to compete.
Even in agriculture, it is large and established farmers who get the big subsidies — not small ones who might want to compete.
The American farm lobby is so powerful that few mainstream politicians dare ignore it. Hess recalls his time as speechwriter for the maverick presidential candidate Barry Goldwater:
... there was a moment, at a conference to determine the campaign's "farm strategy," when a respected and very conservative senator arose to say, "Barry, you've got to make it clear that you believe that the American farmer has a right to a decent living."

Senator Goldwater replied, with the tact for which he is renowned, "But he doesn't have a right to it. Neither do I. We just have a right to try for it." And that was the end of that.

Of course, lobbying is not a peculiarly American problem. It will arise wherever there is a concentration of politicians with too much power and too little accountability. Already, Brussels is proving a match for Washington in this regard.

While many people are politically aware enough to recognise the cosy relationship between Big Business and Big Government, most will nevertheless assert that only the latter can protect us from the former. Hess disputed this:
Monopoly is a case in point. To suppose that anyone needs government protection from the creation of monopolies is to accept two suppositions: that monopoly is the natural direction of unregulated enterprise, and that technology is static. Neither, of course, is true. The great concentrations of economic power, which are called monopolies today, did not grow despite government's antimonopolistic zeal. They grew, largely, because of government policies, such as those making it more profitable for small businesses to sell out to big companies rather than fight the tax code alone. Additionally, Federal fiscal and credit policies and Federal subsidies and contracts have all provided substantially more assistance to big and established companies than to smaller, potentially competitive ones.

A State that Cannot Compel
Libertarians yearn for a state that cannot, beyond any possibility of amendment, confer any advantage on anyone; a state that cannot compel anything, but simply prevents the use of violence, in place of other exchanges, in relations between individuals or groups. Such a state would have as its sole purpose (probably supported exclusively by use taxes or fees) the maintenance of a system to adjudicate disputes (courts), to protect citizens against violence (police), to maintain some form of currency for ease of commerce, and, as long as it might be needed because of the existence of national borders and differences, to maintain a defense force. Meanwhile, libertarians should also work to end the whole concept of the nation-state itself.
In contrast,
The reactionary tendencies of both liberals and conservatives today show clearly in their willingness to cede, to the state or the community, power far beyond the protection of liberty against violence. For differing purposes, both see the state as an instrument not protecting man's freedom but either instructing or restricting how that freedom is to be used.

The liberals would seek to compel social integration. Hess maintained that this is not only immoral, but also impossible:

Racism has been supported in this country not despite of, but thanks to, governmental power and politics. Reverse racism — thinking that government is competent to force people to integrate, just as it once forced them to segregate — is just as political and just as disastrous. It has not worked. Its product has been hatred rather than brotherhood. Brotherhood could never be a political product. It is purely personal.

The conservatives, meanwhile, seek to impose tradition and preempt unrest:

Conservatives today continue to revere the state as an instrument of chastisement even as they reject it as an instrument of beneficence. The conservative who wants a federally authorized prayer in the classroom is the same conservative who objects to federally authorized textbooks in the same room.


For many conservatives, the bad dream that haunts their lives and their political position (which many sum up as "law and order" these days) is one of riot. To my knowledge, there is no limit that conservatives would place upon the power of the state to suppress riots.

Even in a laissez-faire society, of course, the right to self-defense would have to be assumed, and a place for self-defense on a community basis could easily be imagined. But community self-defense would always be exclusively defensive. Conservatives betray an easy willingness to believe that the state should also initiate certain offensive actions, in order to preclude trouble later on.
A principal weapon of those who would seek to preempt unrest is censorship. Some ideas, the authorities claim, are simply too dangerous to be heard. Hess and Goldwater rejected this view:
In 1964, Barry Goldwater alienated Southern conservatives in droves when, in answer to a regionally hot question about whether Communists should be permitted to speak on state-university campuses, Goldwater said, flatly and simply, "Of course they should."
At the height of the Cold War, it was Communists, not Islamists, that preoccupied the political establishment. As Niall Ferguson has noted, "the Cold War was anything but cold". The US undertook overt and covert action in every corner of the globe in an effort to stop the spread of Communism, often with tragic consequences for the local inhabitants. Hess favoured non-aggression, and vigorously opposed conscription:
...given a nation that not enough citizens can be attracted to defend voluntarily, you probably also have a nation that, by definition, isn't really worth defending. ... If our freedom is so fragile that it must be continuously protected by giving it up, then we are in deep trouble.
But what of the 'need', so familiar to residents of Nanny State Britain, to protect citizens from themselves?
In a laissez-faire society, there could exist no public institution with the power to forcefully protect people from themselves. From other people (criminals), yes. From one's own self, no. Marijuana is a plant, a crop. People who smoke it do not do so under the compulsion either of physiological addiction or of institutional power. They do so voluntarily. They find a person who has volunteered to grow it. They agree on a price. One sells; the other buys. One acquires new capital; the other acquires a euphoric experience that, he decides, was worth allocating some of his own resources to obtain.

Incidentally, it is easy to imagine that, if drugs were left to economics and culture instead of politics, medical researchers would shortly discover a way to provide the salable and wanted effects of drugs without the incapacitation of addiction. In this as in similar matters — such as the unregulated competition from which it is felt people need protection — technology rather than politics might offer far better answers.
Despite its dubious moral basis, and its obvious ineffectiveness, the governments of the western world continue their policy of prohibition, and vigorously pursue their War on Drugs. As Jamie Whyte has noted, "it is not concern for our welfare that explains the illegality of drug use. It is bigotry".

Such gratuitous restriction of personal freedom is all the more wicked for the fact that it is funded by the taxpayer. The government confiscates our wealth, and uses it to oppress us.
Politics, throughout time, has been an institutionalized denial of man's ability to survive through the exclusive employment of all his own powers for his own welfare. And politics, throughout time, has existed solely through the resources that it has been able to plunder from the creative and productive people whom it has, in the name of many causes and moralities, denied the exclusive employment of all their own powers for their own welfare.
At its limits, the libertarian ideal will no doubt face practical problems of its own. But it will be a long time before we need to worry that our government is too small, and our people too free.

[1] Even in the current financial crisis, most people in the western world continue to live in relative comfort. That we do not see mass starvation and homelessness, despite gross mismanagement of the economy by government, is a testament to the industrial and agricultural progress we've made since the Great Depression. Big Government may yet succeed in ruining us, but the private sector has thus far provided an impressive buffer.

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