At some point in the days following the November election, it became conventional wisdom that the Republicans lost control of the House because of the war. That is also said to be the reason that President Bush’s poll numbers have sunk lower than Clinton’s ever were, and are tending towards Nixon-level depths.
Can we take a moment to observe how remarkable this “conventional wisdom” truly is, and why it matters? I would like to explain why the results should make us optimistic about the prospects for liberty, even under the current system of politics, which seems so rigged against the triumph of ideals.
When we think of voting patterns and political trends, we usually think in terms of interest groups, and that’s because the political parties serve interest groups primarily. Politics to us is a contest between well-organized clubs who stand to gain or lose financially based on the outcome of legislation.
In general, elections come down to contests between two groups. The first consists of public sector bureaucrats, unions, the elderly who are protecting their government checks, minority groups who cling to special privileges, the winners in the welfare-state lottery, and marginalized oddballs of all sorts who resent cultural impositions by bourgeois America. That group is also known as the Democrats.
They are not all bad because they tend to fight against policies that do not benefit them, such as those policies that help the other group.
And that other group consists of large corporations who seek mercantilist privileges, the commercial class of small and medium-sized merchants who rightly want fewer impositions from government, the Wall Street elite who favor a form of free enterprise that is compromised by loose credit and socialized protections against loss, middle-class producers and consumers who demand rising portfolios through any means possible, and the religious bourgeoisie who are always up for a good war against evil (drugs, moral deviancy, Islam, or whatever). That group is also known as the Republicans.
Yes, this is an oversimplification, but not as much as it might first appear. So much of what the two parties say amounts to little more than ideological gloss. What they do is what matters, and, on the margin, what they do is protect the interests of their affiliated special interests. At their best, the parties check each other’s demands on the public purse. At their worst, they logroll. One group agrees to give the other group what it wants based on a quid pro quo arrangement.
So who has an interest in liberty, a cause which I take to be bound up with radical cuts in government spending, sound money, and slashing the welfare and warfare state? On the one hand, this is in everyone’s interest. On the other hand, these policies are anathema to the pressure groups that have the strongest stake in the outcome of the legislative process. Any genuine libertarian has to be prepared to face fierce and well-organized opponents.
If we were to make a science out of the study of special interest groups, we would conclude that the cause of liberty is hopeless. Those who have the most to gain from intervention are well-organized and well-connected. Those who have the most to gain from freedom are dispersed, diffuse, and not well-connected. In fact, an entire school of thought called Public Choice economics has not only explained how this works; it has counseled despair for the cause of liberty itself.
Now consider war. Who benefits? The people that used to be called the “munitions manufacturers” or the “merchants of death,” which include defense contractors, private groups paid to provide infrastructure rebuilding, oil companies who sell their product to the largest gas-guzzling machines of all time. They gain to the tune of hundreds of billions at others’ expense. In addition, war bureaucrats are given a new lease on life and the political class comes into the national spotlight as saviors of the world.
War costs everyone but only in indirect ways. The government has spent vast amounts of cash but has not taxed anyone for it in new ways. The money is raised through debt and financial trickery. Those who do pay in lives are dispersed as well. There are Iraqis, who have no say in the matter. American soldiers and their families make up a tiny percentage of the population and their own opinions on the war vacillate, since to be against it (they believe) might imply that to die in military service is vain.
With the draft and a war tax, matters are different. People pay directly. Everyone under a certain age is vulnerable to being kidnapped and told to kill and be killed. This focuses the mind. That was probably a good part of the reason the invasion of Vietnam came to an end. A sizeable group of the population began to feel seriously trashed by it.
The voluntary military and debt finance have ended up making war more palatable to the general population. Under this calculus, one might expect that the government has a free hand. It can start any war it wants, even under false pretenses, even with massive expenditures, even when there is no widespread support for the war. So long as the opposition is not focused, the government can get away with it, the same as it gets away with just about every other violation of liberty and property.
So what’s wrong with this calculus? It forgets the important consideration: ideology. This amounts to the ideas that people hold concerning their rights, the role of government, the idea of justice, the role of freedom, their perceptions concerning the right and wrong of public policy, and many other abstractions that can be conceptually separated from self-interest. For example, it might be in your self-interest to steal a flowerpot off your neighbor’s porch when he is on vacation, but you do not do it, not only because you believe it is wrong to steal, but also because you do not want to live in a society in which property is not secure. That’s ideology at work. It includes considerations of morality but also something more broad: our understanding of ideal states of social order.
Ideology matters for public policy. Politicians must seek public approval or at least permission for what they do to us. If people believe that martial law is an egregious idea — even if the practice would not affect some groups personally — the politicians can’t get away with it. Ideology is what takes us outside our own self-interest to consider the general interest, and to act on our perceptions.
In leveling a political defeat against war, a majority of voters in the last election decided to think more broadly instead of in terms of their own self-interest. They punished the Republicans for instigating the war on Iraq, even though the war’s costs are not directly pressing on the average voter. What happened was that a previous ideology — the ideology of nationalism and the rationale of security — came to be discredited in favor of another ideology, that which suggests that the US has no business attempting to remake the world by force, and the attempt only leads to disaster for all people.
In this election, even diehard Republicans crossed party lines to deliver a telling blow against their own party — and this is despite apparently good economic times, despite low inflation, despite a rising stock market, and despite the recent absence of serious terror attempts on our own soil. The Republicans had every reason to believe that they would emerge victorious. But what they didn’t count on was the effect of ideology. People have turned against the war. Republican voters have turned against the war.
We are frequently told today that ideology is dead, and that voters are nothing but self-interested automatons. The elderly are supposed to vote for lower drug prices, businesses for tax cuts, farmers for subsidies, minorities for hiring preferences, among a thousand other demands. But every so often, other and more important considerations come into play. Libertarians have every reason to celebrate when ideology trumps self-interest. If interest only were to dictate political outcomes, democracy becomes nothing but a game rigged in favor of looting and pillaging through the law. But with ideology, democracy becomes a vehicle for change.
This is also why education is so important to the cause of liberty. Here we are not merely talking about a professor with a chalkboard lecturing to a captive audience. We are talking about a society-wide transformation of public opinion. We need to make resources available. We need to use every means at our disposal to teach economics, raise public consciousness, instill an ethic of liberty, and draw constant attention to the reality that statism in all its forms is a destructive racket.
This is the path that will finally overthrow the regimentation of modern political life and cause it to be replaced by freedom and peace. That is why November 2006 should give us hope. In the final analysis, it is not self-interest but the ideas people hold about themselves and their government that will determine our political future. Even though it can be a struggle to find our way there, revolutions can happen. In the end, it is the idealists, and not the cynical campaign consultants, who shape our world.