Friday, December 19, 2008

Against USA, Inc.

Tibor R. Machan

Just as in much of human political history the grossest error was to see society as the household of some leader--pharaoh, monarch, tsar, or dictator--in our era the mistake is to see society as a company or corporation that needs a CEO. Although in much of the West the political idea of monarchy, a country lead by one individual with various measures of powers--absolute to limited--has been traded in for democracy--one lead by and for all of the people--this has not proven to be a sufficient improvement.

The very idea of society as a purposeful organization, like a corporation, is the big mistake of contemporary politics. It shows up well during the current transition from the Bush to the Obama administration, what with the parade of appointments of officers who are supposed to run various aspects of USA, Inc. The spectacle reminds one of that famous Monty Python episode, “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” Intentionally or not, the renown British comedy troupe showed how absurd it is to view government as the management team of the great variety of elements of a society.

The basic lesson implicit in the sketch and in much of human political history is that society is not an organization set up to pursue some goal such as scientific progress, prosperity, artistic development, physical fitness, worship of God, etc. Societies are, instead, settings for the members to pursue their great variety of purposes in ways that are mutually harmonious, that make it possible for everyone to pursue peaceful goals that are, however, extremely different from one another.

This is one reason some of us cringe whenever there is talk of how a country requires a leader! It does not, since a country isn’t headed anywhere and no expertise of getting it there, the role of a leader, is relevant to its government. Instead, a country, properly understood, is a realm within which innumerably varied goals may be pursued by millions of different people in different peaceful arrangements--as individuals, families, clubs, corporations, teams, etc., etc. Once it is understood that adult human beings have a right to their lives, to their liberty, and to their acquisition of property (valued stuff), it becomes more and more evident that thinking of society as some purposeful organization is a gross mistake.

Just consider all these secretaries of this and secretaries of that, and their innumerable deputies and such, that president-elect Obama is appointing--what are they all for? To help him take the country down some road to a destination that he imagines was chosen by the people who voted him into office. With a private firm, profit or non-profit, this is an acceptable way to understand the role of the president or CEO and his or her management team. Those who set up such a firm have come together aiming for some goal--helping the poor or sick or making cars for profit and similar familiar pursuits. So the president or CEO has a well enough defined job to carry out.

But a society isn’t anything like that. The people didn’t come together to aim for any common goal. (This is what is so misconceived about the idea of the public interest or the common good other than in some minimal way, comparable to how referees at a game may be said to pursue the common good of upholding the rules but without by any means being players.) The political mission in a society is precisely to provide a framework within which all the disparate factions--those individuals, clubs, companies, etc. mentioned earlier--are free to work for what they want to accomplish.

Sadly, most of those doing this will regard their chosen goal to be politically very important, maybe even superior to all the others being pursued. But this is a mistake. Here is where equality is an important aspect of a truly free society--everyone’s peaceful objective is equally politically worthy of pursuit and the job of government is to secure the equal right of all to do what they want.

But if so, then politics doesn’t really call for all these secretaries of this and secretaries of that, as it may be proper in a business corporation or some other purposeful organization. It calls for a competent team of peacekeepers, nothing else. And the only element of democracy in such an organization is that the keeping of the peace, the securing of rights, is for all members of the community.

Government, even if democratic--meaning one that serves everyone in society--is to be limited in its scope. That scope is to secure our rights, just as the American Founders envisioned it.

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