Column on Unromantic Politics

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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