THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 388, October 8, 2006
"Why Don't They Get It?"
Credit The Libertarian Enterprise
When I was in the US Army (1973-1977), there was a sign posted in one of the headquarters I worked in that said, "Piss Poor Planning Precludes Perfect Performance." This was referred to as the Six Ps. Well, in a moment of alliteration, I did that one better, with the Seven Ps: Political Power Produces Pragmatists, Precluding Principled People. Okay, so it's not the self-introduction by V in the movie "V for Vendetta." But it makes a powerful point, which I will produce, post-haste. (Sorry.)
As I had noted in a previous column, F.A. Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, logically illustrated why positions of power, or "planning" in his terms, will always end up being occupied by people most of us would consider unsavory. To briefly recap, those positions will, of necessity, eventually require the person to make decisions that will have very bad consequences for other people subject to the results of those decisions. Principled people will either leave such a position, or lose their principles. An opening for a position of such power will attract those who actively wish to use (usually, misuse) such power. Either way, you get a creep in charge.
A corollary of this is that any political system, no matter how tightly controlled at first, will eventually succumb to this effect; that even people of the highest principles, honesty and ideals will surrender to the temptation to "do what's right" rather than to stick to the rule of law. By this I mean laws that flow from libertarian principles, or at least laws founded on general principles, rather than the mish-mash of single-issue, hard-cases-make-bad-laws mess we have in the US today.
In The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Thomas Sowell points out that, on order to have a "rule of law," the rules must be knowable in advance (there will always be some people so ignorant of the world around them that there will be ignorance of a given law) and apply to everyone in every case. What this implies is that exceptions must not be made for individual cases because "it just isn't right!" Once such exemptions from a law are begun, they cannot logically be prevented from being made again and again, rendering the law toothless. (There are ways around this, depending on the law in question. One is to render a guilty verdict, but have a minimal penalty, when circumstances are of sufficient mitigation. Or, if the law itself lacks sufficient moral authority, repeal it; first by jury nullification, then by legislative act. Of course, in a libertarian, anarchistic society, this is not so much of a problem.)
So, what are we to make of Libertarians running for office? I know a few, and my judgment of their character is that they would rather leave such an office than violate their principles. This action leaves that office open again to people who would not balk at wielding that power, and abusing it to one extent of another. But what if some Libertarian gains such a position, and decides that, pragmatically, he/she should "go along" with just this one bad decision or bill, in order to remain in the office in order to either do good things or to reduce the damage which a less principled person in that position would wreak. Wouldn't there soon be another opportunity to make the same sort of dismal compromise? And not long thereafter, that person would no longer be any sort of Libertarian, small or big L. I know this is trite, but "You cannot use the Ring for good!"
There is a strong temptation for idealists like us to dream of righting wrongs. As Sowell notes in another section of Cosmic Justice, during the French Revolution, "Certain members of the French national assembly were deputized to go around the country as 'representatives on a mission' righting wrongs as they saw fit . . ." They were allowed to over-ride any local laws or customs, and "even carried their own guillotine with them, to dispense their own brand of justice on the spot." Reminds one of the song by The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again." Such people are "riding with a heady sense of moral mission and personal gratification [that] only makes them more dangerous." (Again, from Cosmic Justice.)
So what does this mean? Should libertarians/Libertarians refrain from running for office? My own feeling is, no. I believe that having libertarians in various offices can help by broadening the debate of what the government should or should not be doing to us. Even if the only new topic is the endless repetition of "It's none of anyone else's business!" But we should never be seduced by the belief that the US government, nor any other, can be changed from within by principled people. The problem is NOT the people running the government, not in the sense of why governments tend to grow more and more evil over time. The system of government itself will produce that result regardless of the people occupying the controls, given time. We are humans, not angels. We all fail from time to time. Moral people expect to pay for their own failures; it is burdensome to constantly pay (in so many ways) for the failures of those set over us by elections, appointments or mere employment in the right job. As P.J. O'Rourke said, "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." (Parliament of Whores, a whopping good read.)
Let's find a way to lock up the booze and take away their car keys. Because trying to supervise the party and selecting "designated drivers" doesn't seem to be working too well.