Bland Leaders of the Bland Leviathan

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Al
Gore is boring. George W. Bush is boring. Bob Dole was boring.
Bill Clinton successfully avoided being boring, but in terms of
the public’s memory, he will be probably remembered more for the
Lewinsky affair than for anything else, unless something even
worse becomes public knowledge. Clinton was touted as an excellent
speaker — an opinion I never shared — but his rhetorical
legacy will be limited to two phrases: "I feel your pain"
and "I did not have sex with that woman." These will
enter the lexicon of political howlers right below Jimmy Carter’s
"Trust me" and George Bush’s "Read my lips: no
new taxes."

(Note:
the all-time American political howler was Nixon’s line to reporters
in November, 1962, after he had lost the California race for governor
to Edmund G. "Pat" Brown: "You won’t have Dick
Nixon to kick around any more.")

Across
the Atlantic, there was John Major. Remember him? There was Helmut
Kohl, the one politician of our era whose name perfectly matched
his persona. In German, "kohl" means "cabbage."
(It is conceivable that Mexico’s President-elect may match Kohl’s
name-persona relationship: Fox.)
Kohl served as Chancellor for 15 years, longer than any major
politician of our era, including Mrs. Thatcher. Under him, Germany
was reunified. Nevertheless, a kind of public amnesia spreads
regarding his career.

Japanese
premiers come and go. No one notices.

Reagan,
Thatcher, and Gorbachev seem to be the last of the memorable world
leaders. They were the last ones who had anything to say and the
rhetorical skills to say it.

When
was the last time any important American political figure gave
a really confrontational speech? Pat Buchanan’s speech at the
1992 Republican convention on the culture war was delivered eight
years ago, and he has been excoriated by political analysts of
all shades of opinion ever since. This year’s Republican convention
was choreographed to avoid any trace of confrontation.

Economic
times are good. Voters are happy. Soccer moms drive SUV’s. Bush
offers tax cuts as his campaign promise, and everyone ignores
him. "Keep more of your money," he says. Yawn. Why the
yawn? Is it because voters think, "Read my lips, too"?
Or because they are content with the present tax system? I think
it’s the latter.

Leonard
E. Read, the godfather of the American libertarian movement, used
to say in his "old faithful" speech that American voters
in less than one lifetime, 1910 to 1970, went from a system of
civil government that extracted about 5% of their wealth to over
40%, yet they could not tell the difference.

I
honestly believe this is the heart of the political problem. Voters
understand so little of what liberty means that they cannot tell
the difference.

Christians
and Jews read the account of Joseph in Egypt, when Joseph placed
the Egyptians in bondage to Egypt’s official divinity, the Pharaoh,
by imposing a 20% income tax on them (Genesis 47:24). Today, it
would take a tax cut of 50% in every Western nation to bring the
tax burden back to Egyptian tyranny status. And as for a “liberating”
10% flat tax, that was what the prophet Samuel identified as kingly
tyranny in Israel (I Samuel 8:15, 17). The faithful in the pews
do not relate what they read to what they are required to pay.
They do not make the connection. They cannot tell the difference.

The
Bland Leviathan and Its Agents

If
I were asked to identify the greatest social theorist in modern
history, I would name Alexis de Tocqueville. He wrote two great
books, The Ancient Regime and the French Revolution (1856)
and Democracy in America (1835, 40). He predicted that
the West’s lust for equality would overwhelm all other political
goals. So far, that prediction has held up.

Tocqueville
was elected to the French Parliament in 1848, in the aftermath
of the revolution of 1848. He was imprisoned in 1851 by Louis
Napoleon Bonaparte for opposing Bonaparte’s coup. While he was
serving in Parliament, he provided a description of the modern
state as a leviathan, but a mild and bland one. He saw the state
as a usurper, but a seemingly benign one. (See Robert Schuettinger,
“Tocqueville and the Bland Leviathan” The Freeman [Jan.
1962].)

Ever
since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reigning liberal ideological
idea has been the convergence of all ideology-based political
systems. Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 post-Hegelian
Hegelian essay
in The National Interest, “The End of
History,” sounded this new theme: the irreversible triumph of
liberal democratic humanism. No more thesis-antithesis-synthesis.
The synthesis is here to stay. It’s all over but the shouting.
But what about Islam? Christianity? Racism? Regionalism? The implied
answer: they will all succumb to liberal democracy. (Fukuyama
has more recently written Trust, which is quite good, unlike
the essay that launched his career.)

The
convergence theme was an aging one in 1989. America’s foreign
policy establishment had been assuring us since the late 1940s
that there would eventually be a convergence of the USSR and the
United States if both sides were patient, but the image of Khrushchev
pounding the United Nations’ podium with his shoe, coupled with
his "We will bury you" remark — another classic
saying to include in the political lexicon of howlers — made
that idea hard to sell in Peoria.

Convergence
in ideology is producing convergence in politics. What we are
seeing today is the continuing evolution of the species: the bland
candidate. Tom Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, George Bush,
and George Bush are all prime examples.

Al
Gore is trying very hard not to be classified as one of them,
but as a living fossil, this is not easy for him. The man reminds
me of a Nintendo video game: "The Tennessee Waltz."
His kiss on national TV was an attempt to switch the game to "The
Tennessee Stud." Just insert this week’s updated program
chip, as the manual recommends, and he looks brand new, until
you use the game stick to try to get him to move. The image jerks
across the screen, doing high-fives as it goes. Then you know:
this is basically a modification of the old "Michael Dukakis"
game, but with all of the virtual charisma removed.

The
bland virus is spreading, east and west. Think of Putin. Think
of the Prime Ministers of France, Germany, and Italy. You can’t,
can you?

Voters
prefer it this way. Noisy dissent violates etiquette during the
days of wine and roses. Fair economic weather favors the bland
over the confrontational.

When
Bad Times Reappear

This
will change when the Federal Reserve’s fiat money policies tighten,
and the economy moves from boom to bust, as it always does. The
reality of Chapter XX of Mises’s Human
Action
will once again reassert itself. Then we shall
see the return of the older species, the name-calling, finger-pointing,
revenge-seeking, head-banging, values-affirming, deficit-running,
pump-priming homo politicus.

Through
it all, the bland leviathan remains dominant through the business
cycles. It feeds voraciously on millions of hosts who do not perceive
the difference between freedom and servitude. It has been in growth
mode for over two centuries. Until its hosts at last feel the
pain and identify its source, the malignancy will continue to
expand. And the bland will continue to lead the bland into the
ditch.

September
25, 2000

Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic
Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and
Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at www.freebooks.com.

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