The Poverty of Politics

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“Thus the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective. And this entails two further consequences of ominous significance.

First, even if there were no political groups trying to influence him, the typical citizen would in political matters tend to yield to extra-rational prejudice and impulse.  . . . Second, . . . the weaker the logical element in the processes of the public mind and the more complete the absence of rational criticism and of the rationalizing influence of personal experience and responsibility, the greater are the opportunities for groups with an ax to grind.”

(Joseph Schumpeter, from pp. 262—63 of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 3rd edition)

During this past week, once again I have been thankful for not having access to outside television, thus depriving me of that "opportunity" to watch the Democratic National Convention. When the Republicans meet during the last week in August, I will be doubly thankful for my personal choice of deprivation.

That does not mean I have been able to escape the inanity in Boston that has been provided by the botox-injection recipients who have been crowding the stage. All the Internet sites — from where I receive most of my news — have been full of headlines and pictures, so I cannot miss things like the images of John Edwards and the government employees (who comprise the vast majority of delegates to the DNC meetings) who wave signs with "hope" written across them.

In fact, from what the headlines blared as I logged onto the Internet this morning, Edwards had presented John Kerry to the delegates as a practitioner of the "politics of hope." Thus, I would like to dissect that phrase to demonstrate not only the phoniness of this entire charade, but also the outright poverty of the belief that politics gives us hope.

For those not familiar with the ancient Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, a curious girl named Pandora was instructed not to open a chest, something that would impose grave circumstances upon the world, which then was peaceful, orderly, and pretty much perfect. Unfortunately, Pandora gave into her inquisitiveness and opened the lid of the chest; instantly, all sorts of evil sprang from the box, and she could not collect them to put them back. Evil was in the world, and the whole mess could not be undone.

However, Pandora was not finished. She opened the chest once again, and out sprang Hope. Now, in our modern thinking, this second act has been presented as a good thing: Pandora inexplicably let evil loose in the world, but at least we also have hope. The ancient Greeks, however, saw things differently. Their explanation went as follows: It was bad enough that Pandora put evil into the world through her blundering, but then she made things even worse by giving us hope — and we know full-well there is no hope.

Therefore, in Greek thinking, hope was not good, but rather an extension of evil, since people forever would be fooled into believing their repeated acts of failure suddenly would morph into something successful. Hope would keep people from recognizing their own folly and the poverty of their own thoughts.

The advent of Christianity changed the western view of hope. In Christian terms, hope is not an attitude of wistfulness, but rather the understanding that God will work his ultimate eternal purposes into something that will be good, or at least good for those who are believers. Thus, the term takes on religious significance.

There is no doubt in my mind that political conventions are religious entities — albeit a false and heretical religion, but a religion nonetheless. When Jimmy Carter give his acceptance speech to DNC delegates in 1976, people in the audience were weeping and holding out their hands in the same manner one sees people acting at a Pentecostal revival. They were having a religious experience, listening with fervent hope as Carter promised to eliminate poverty, injustice and provide Americans and the world with all sorts of good things.

(That some of those same delegates four years later were willing to nominate the socialist Edward Kennedy for President of the United States does not negate their religious fervor. Kennedy had become the new god for them.)

In political terms, hope becomes the engine that permits politicians to foist failed schemes upon people, in the wrong-headed and cynical belief that after a thousand utter failures, a plan of action will prove successful — or at least will give the results that were claimed for the action when it was begun. In his book, An American in Leningrad, Logan Robinson (who was studying Soviet law for a year following his graduation from Harvard Law School) recounts a dinner he had with some Russian friends at a local restaurant.

In a discussion of socialism and its failures, a student stood up holding a piece of meat on the end of his form. "I know this is bad meat," said the student, "but in Russia we have hope." Socialism gave him the bad meat, it would continue to provide bad meat, but his fervent hope was that in an unknown future, the socialist system suddenly would do something right.

When the 9/11 Commission (after a series of dog-and-pony show hearings) released its final report, it supposedly was criticizing how the government conducted some of its "intelligence" operations and gave suggestions on how to improve the apparatus of gathering "intelligence" in order to prevent future terrorist attacks on Americans. The commission was unwittingly condemning the government itself and the political processes that went with it; I say "unwittingly" because that is not what the political hacks who made up this august body thought they were doing. In the vernacular, they were trying to rearrange the deck chairs as the Titanic was sinking, an act of absurdity.

Yet, the commission members have "hope." John Edwards has "hope." John Kerry has "hope" (and some botox injections to give the youthful appearance of "hope"). The DNC delegates have "hope." George W. Bush and his minions will tell the nation next month that they will provide "hope."

Yes, the political classes have "hope," but no answers — because their way of doing things can never provide hope. The welfare-warfare state always will have the same results, no matter who occupies the White House and Congress or sits in the judges’ chambers. Kerry and Edwards do not have a "plan" of how the USA can "win" in Iraq because no such plan could possibly exist — no matter what Edwards might have announced to the delegates.

Bush’s "Patriot Act" does not and cannot make people more secure, any more than we can take heart in watching U.S. prisons fill up to frightful levels. Howard Dean was right; the arrest of Saddam Hussein did not make this country or the world any safer. To put it ever so bluntly, the political classes can give us no hope whatsoever; none.

I have no idea what was in the mind of John Edwards when he spoke to the DNC delegates. Did he believe his rhetoric, or was this a masterful act of cynicism? Either way, it makes no difference. If Kerry and Edwards win in November — and I believe they will — all that happens is that they and their fellow political hacks will take over the reins of an already-too-powerful administrative branch of the central government. They will have the power to make our lives worse, not better.

Nor do I write these words cynically. Kerry and Edwards have told us repeatedly how they will govern when elected; we already know how Bush will govern, given his record of the past four years.

For those of us who understand the true poverty of politics, we look elsewhere for answers, and even hope. When the British Crown was levying taxes, fines, and restrictions upon the American colonials in the 1760s and early 1770s, many Americans despaired and could see only more of the same in the future. When the British armies were winning victory after victory during the Revolutionary War, no doubt many despaired and could not see any good in the American future.

Like them, we see a governmental apparatus that is so strong and so crushingly powerful that one wonders if freedom will ever again see the light of day in this world. Thus, those of us who still prize that free society, who still believe in the goodness of private property, free exchange, and the freedom to express our thoughts and ideas, must go on, saying what we believe needs to be said.

Do we act with hope, or at least the hope of which the ancient Greeks so cynically put down? I believe that ideas matter, and that good ideas matter greatly. The Soviet Union, supposedly the mightiest police state the planet had ever seen, collapsed because it could not stand up to the impeccable logic of Ludwig von Mises.

Likewise, the logic of Mises condemns the welfare-warfare state that now governs us. No matter what the politicians may say when speaking before their favored delegates, this unwieldy apparatus of governance cannot and will not stand forever, as it will fall of its own weight.

Until that time occurs — and one hopes that the ideas of freedom will move into that vacuum — things will become worse before they become better. It is our role — and I do not discount it — to remind people that there is a better way to live. The political classes offer no hope at all. We do.

July 30, 2004

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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