Monday, January 19, 2009

Unromantic Politics

Tibor R. Machan

Many of us are pretty much convinced that politics must be corrupt. So we are cynics and will never accept that politicians really mean what they say when they describe their goals in glowing terms, when they offer themselves and their colleagues up as saviors. I didn't accept that line back when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated--I was then in the US Air Force stationed at Andrews AFB, the "president's airport"--and I don't accept this rose colored view of politics today, coming from Barrack Obama and his supporters.

Yet, I am no cynic. The sort of view of politics we get from, for example, the famous American

essayist H. L. Mencken is over the top. As a cautionary perspective it is useful but as a true characterization of the vocation it is an exaggeration. It's comparable to considering all of medicine quackery and all doctors quacks. Wrong.

So what is a more modest, sensible way of looking at politics, one that's neither blindly romantic nor cynical?

Well, once politics is understood as a specific, limited kind of task that doesn't easily go astray and thus doesn't attract manipulators--the equivalent of quacks in that field--there is a decent chance for politics without corruption. The term "politics" comes from the ancient Greek word "polis," which was used by the likes of Aristotle to designate an organized, well structured human community, one neither tyrannical nor anarchistic. Something remains of this meaning as the term "police officer" is also rendered "peace officer." In other words, properly understood, politics is supposed to be about securing peace within human communities which, in turn, requires an understanding of how that could be done.

Throughout most of the history of human community life the belief dominated that communities could be organized by being ruled by strong, wise, and virtuous people or those who laid claim to these attributes. Sadly, this led to tyrannies, dictatorships, mob rule, and other forms of brutally run community affairs wherein peace was achieved by means of oppression--like the peace we find in prisons and jails, totally unsuited to human life. And this pretty much meant that nearly all politics was put into the service of corrupt rulers. Thus the cynicism about politics.

The revolutionary insight of the American Founders--by no means original since it had been proposed in ancient times by Lao Tzu and Alcibiades, just to mention two of its advocates--was that viable, uncorrupted politics comes from delimiting the scope of the task of keeping the peace to containing aggressive human conduct but not regulating, regimenting all of it. John Locke, the English political philosopher, identified the standards of such limited politics as the natural rights of human individuals. If those rights are respected and protected, the power required to keep the peace would be contained and not allowed to spill over into improper use. Such politics would not be corrupt because the force needed to keep the peace would only be used for its designated purpose--as the Founders put it, "to secure these rights," defensively.

Where politics goes astray is by being allowed to infest much of human relations in our communities. Science, health care, sports, the arts, education, and so forth are thus run and regulated by governments--by kings, tsars, majorities, politburos, and others who embark on taking over the managing of all our lives. This is what was wrong with the monarchy the American Founders unseated and it is the trouble with contemporary politics, as well. Not until it is learned that politics must be limited in its scope, and applied accordingly to law and public policy, will politics escape nearly universal corruption.

As with all legitimate tasks and occupations, politics can be thoroughly corrupt and the likelihood that it would be is considerable, seeing that it amounts to deploying coercive force in virtually all human affairs, something easily abused (just think of all the rouge cops). But unlike the cynic believes, it need not be so. Politics isn't necessarily corrupt, only largely so because of how easily it lends itself to abuse.

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