There are two levels of political discourse in America: the real world and the federal election. They rarely intersect. It seems to be the job of political consultants to understand this point, and keep the candidate focused intensely in public pronouncements on what doesn’t matter. There is an explanation for this that goes to the root problem with the democratic system of government.
Let’s first consider the problem. The 3 main headlines today were about the following:
- The devastating blow to the Bush administration from federal courts that says, surprise, that the federal government cannot just snatch up someone from private life, declare him an “enemy combatant” and detain him in prison for year after year without charges. That’s because this country isn’t yet the Soviet Union or a nightmare scenario from a dystopian novel.
- The bomb that hit the office of a Shiite party in Iraq was actually intended for Paul Bremer. Clearly, administrators of the so-called government in Iraq would all be shot dead if they walked in sunlight unguarded, and they know it. Indeed, it shows that something is profoundly wrong in a country when the government is the most hunted institution in society.
- Schwarzenegger is unilaterally imposing $150 million in cuts as a way of dealing with the prospect of a $15 billion deficit. Unlike the federal government, the deficit of which is 40 times that large, the state can’t just print the money it needs, as much as politicians would like it to. The federal government could use such a system.
In politics, in contrast, the news is internal to itself and essentially unrelated, as if it were about a disconnected sports match, the result of which is interesting in its own right but is neither driven by reality nor holds out any real hope for changing it.
- Can Howard Dean — who apparently thinks government should be larger than it is — make inroads into the South, where conservative Bible Christians predominate?
- Can the economy be made to look pretty enough to re-elect Bush?
- Does Dean have the prowess not to seriously challenge anything fundamental about the Bush administration’s Iraq War so as to alienate potential voters?
These are the central election questions of the day. They presume that the issues such as those mentioned above have no bearing at all on the process that leads us to choose who will administer the government. Whether swarthy people have the right to a fair trial — or not to be unjustly accused at all — has no real bearing on whether Bush will be reelected. All that matters is appealing to people’s prejudices and pocketbooks, and anything said that might actually bring enlightenment to world affairs can only mean trouble for getting the nomination and getting elected.
And the truth is that very few people can be bothered with election news until just before it takes place. It is a subject for specialists without any real political values. Most people rightly assume that a candidate will say anything to get elected and the one who succeeds in doing that — no small feat — deserves to take power. What happens after that is ultimately up to the forces of history. No candidate can or should be held to his word, any more than Bush should be run out of town for running against Clinton’s activist foreign policy and then giving new meaning to the word imperialism after he is elected.
Whether Team A or Team B wins in the end is really neither here nor there for the American people, who understand at some level that it really doesn’t matter, that the elections may be great sport, but ultimately have no bearing on the quality of life. The people who cheer the loudest have the greatest stake in the outcome, namely those whose livelihood depends on it, meaning that they are hooked into the state apparatus at some level. If I were a neoclassical economist, I would call this a massive social cost, but as an Austrian I would just say it is a vastly unproductive expenditure of time and money.
Then there are the good-government liberals who are always trying to redirect the candidates’ attention over to what they call the “issues,” which come down to a litany of shortened victim claims: unemployment, health care, racism, the elderly, and on and on. The root assumption behind what the liberals want to call the “issues” is that government ought to do more to socialize the economy. If a candidate says something besides what amounts to a demand for more government, he is said to be employing “demagoguery.”
Meanwhile the Bush administration goes about its merry way, bombing, spending, detaining, and violating liberties on every front, knowing full well that none of it is going to matter in the end. They only need to make the right ideological sounds at the last minute — calling Dean or whomever a tax-and-spend liberal — and otherwise keep the economy ginned up before the election. For the government, the elections are a distraction at worst, or just another opportunity to gouge the private sector to fork over dough in order to assure some preferred electoral outcome.
The heck of it is that everyone seems to know that a radical disconnect exists between the real world and the political world, and yet we are all supposed to sing songs to the glory of our system that puts people in charge of the largest and most powerful government in history based on electoral whim. This certainly makes the case for Hoppe. The bottom line is that there is no good system for managing a government that is out of control and no system of government that successfully restrains the state.
Democracy? Whether the idea was always a mistake, it takes a really stupid leap of faith to believe that it is anything but a failure right now. The worst part of democracy is that it grants the state the luxury of believing that we approve of the system as it is. There is nothing more dangerous than a politician with a mandate. We are sometimes told that Iraq isn’t ready for democracy. Why should it be? Those who will establish it (the US government) will be the ultimate victors no matter who is ostensibly in charge — much like in the US.
Some people say that voting is still a good idea if only to apply a measure of justice for the criminals currently in charge. Toss them out and teach them a lesson! That sounds like a good idea but the problem is that voting against someone always means voting for someone else. Everyone who winces at what Bush has done to this country and to its image abroad has secretly wished for the return of (shuddering to say it) Clinton.
That doesn’t mean that caring about public affairs is a waste of time. What restrains this state and all states in human history ultimately comes down to public opinion. To the extent that you refrain from contributing to the sense that anyone has the right to rule anyone else, you have done your part to break the chains that enslave us to the unreal world of elections and politics.