Political Leaders: The Worst Among Us?
American media commentators, in their infinite wisdom, often pontificate about how our political leaders should be made up of the “best and brightest.” But does this ever actually happen? Sure, great people may attain the heights of political office, but that’s if we’re lucky. A strong moral character is not hallmark of the state – even in liberal democracies. Schools often teach children that government exists for the sake of benevolent public service. In preaching this, they do our kids a massive, Wilsonian disservice. Many of our greatest authors, from Mark Twain to Nathaniel Hawthorne, embody an anti-authoritarian tradition, one that was eager to point out the propensity of the powerful toward scapegoating, moral panics and state aggression.
Everyone likes a good ghost story, so I decided to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. There’s one passage early in the novel where Hawthorne described the legacy of the Salem Witch Trials, and how much of the blame for the terror rested on the shoulders of those in official positions of power:
Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen,—the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day stood in the inner circle round about the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived. If any one part of their proceedings can be said to deserve less blame than another, it was the singular indiscrimination with which they persecuted, not merely the poor and aged, as in former judicial massacres, but people of all ranks; their own equals, brethren, and wives.
Those who hold power, especially within the state, are often the strongest and most brutal supporters of such deceptions. This is why Americans today often see their own political leadership defend things like the war on drugs, warrantless domestic surveillance, the drone program and the wider war on terror.
I often hear people say: “I can’t believe this politician would use a tragedy for political purposes!”
Why are you surprised? It serves the interest of politicians to politicize, as their jobs often consist of doing terrible things on a daily basis. By definition, the necessary evil of the state entails the of use force to allow or prevent people from doing certain things. Singing up and doing the job well requires a certain moral character, or lack thereof. Within proper limits, it helps secure the existence of civil society. Outside those limits, it crushes civil society.
We should actually be glad that the “best and brightest” don’t attain political office. They’re better off starting businesses, inventing things, curing diseases, and writing great albums and books – the last place smart and creative people should be is in the grinding misery of the public sector.
The necessary evil of the state entails the use of force to allow or prevent people from doing certain things. Singing up and doing the job well requires a certain moral character, or lack thereof.
It’s not that there’s some unique aura of evil housed within the halls of government (“but some of my best friends are…” yes, I get it). But as an institution, the state functions to serve a set of interests, not a foundation of first principles. Still, many politically-minded people call for an expansive, intrusive central government that can influence (or even dictate) matters of economics, private life and education – even though it’s the entity least qualified to do any of these things.
When arguing for limitations on state power, against those who would herald its expansion as “progress” – libertarians are often confronted by the following contention: that in a “libertarian society,” you may want to live peacefully, but without a state to enforce law and order, your psychopathic neighbor will have no barriers to committing theft, vandalism and murder. In short: you’d have the old Hobbesian scenario of life as “nasty, brutish and short.” Even if you set aside the several distinctions between anarchism and libertarianism, this is little more than a straw-man. Murder, theft and vandalism can happen in any neighborhood, regardless of the level of state power.
And when it comes to theft, kidnapping, torture and mass murder, no neighbor has been more historically bad as the state: the Inquisition, the Witch Trials (in America and even more so in Europe), the Great Purges, the Holocaust and so on.
Because it holds the monopoly over physical violence and coercion, the state is able to legitimize these acts of terror under the guise of the “public good” (e.g. show trials to expunge “enemies of the people”). Of course the magistrates were the loudest to applaud when yet another innocent soul had his or her neck broken, they had the most to gain. By exacerbating the already-existing divides among people, the state is able to portray itself and the indispensable mediator and protector of public order, even when it does the exact opposite.
The relationship of the individual to the state is different from that of one individual to another. If a resident of a particular town is thought of as strange, perhaps even wicked, other residents can peacefully ignore or shun that person without using guns to “do something about it.” So long as no one infringes on the rights of others (where state intervention would actually be warranted), this is of little consequence. But if a large, powerful institution becomes involved, it may see this resident’s very existence as contrary to its interests. That haggard, awkward outcast is no longer a human being with rights, but a witch whose iniquity must be smashed at all costs.
The relationship of the individual to the state is different from that of one individual to another.
Things like trust, loyalty and compassion cement relationships among individuals (and yes, that includes your relationship with that nice cousin of yours who works for the IRS), creating the sphere we know as “private life” or “civil society.” But these bonds are difficult to replicate between the individual and the state. The government does not love you. And it is only loyal to you to the extent that it fears you. It is a necessary evil, and that’s why it must be restrained and not heralded as something it is not. George Will often notes how the most important word in the American Declaration of Independence is the word “secure.” Government exists to secure rights that already exist, not to create new ones tailored to its interests.
This isn’t meant to be a reductive exercise, not all evil emanates from the state. And after all, the state is made up of individuals who do terrible things. But when people choose to take on the official narrative of the state, without consulting the instrument of conscience, they become tone-deaf to their own complicity. As Hannah Arendt described in Eichmann in Jerusalem, evil is not some mysterious, spiritual force, it resides in the acts of everyday people. But some people have more scruples than others, or are perhaps more unthinkingly subservient to power.
Sure, many people go into government with good intentions, but these intentions are better served creating parallel institutions that make state intervention unnecessary. It reminds me of a great article in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf where, when referring to the expansion of executive power under Bush and Obama, he points out that “To an increasing degree, we’re counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils.” It’s one thing if the devil is your unfriendly neighbor or the coworker with a chip on his shoulder – it’s another when you give him official authority over your economic and social life, backed up by the threat of physical force.
Many people go into government with good intentions, but these intentions are better served creating parallel institutions that make state intervention unnecessary.
And yes, go on and relish how the state uses its power to do something you agree with. But what will you say when it turns its guns on you? Will it be “all for the greater good” then? Where’s your nice, shiny civics course textbook now?
When the righteousness of official authority is taken as a given, abetting an atrocity becomes like buying a loaf of bread. And when those individuals unthinkingly work for an institution with certain interests – and when that institution is not held in constant suspicion and skepticism by the public – individuals become the hand of Leviathan itself.