There is a lesson behind this picture. It is a disappointing tale but it must be told. This picture is from Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square in Cairo. The Egyptians who took down the Mubarak regime should be proud of themselves. Yes, they scored a victory for freedom. Yes, they did so by uniting. And most importantly, they showed the world that through uniting to face common problems, we can do anything.
However, the Egyptian Revolution took an unhappy turn. Since Mubarak resigned, what has happened? Hundreds have been killed and far more beaten, shot at and arrested for nothing. Who killed and attacked the people? Who did it before the Revolution? It is not the military. The military is one part of the state. Telling the military to move aside means asking a different set of rulers, still with different priorities from yours, to govern you. It is not one part of the state that represses. It is the state as a whole.
The state is not a humanitarian organisation. It is not a way for people to work together to get things done. And it does not represent the people. It is an institution that forces everyone to comply with the mandates of a few very powerful people who have their own interests at heart. If something needs to be done, why would you want these people to do it for you?
The state comprises far more people than a few elected “representatives”. It means the military, the heads of which will remain influential, rich and unaccountable, powerful businesspeople, police, bureaucrats and everyone who is connected to those in power. Those who have the power to initiate force, to use violence on others, will use it to protect their interests against those who want their freedom. That is true everywhere. Most Egyptians know the state has amassed power and wealth over the past 30 years but seem to think they have tamed it. But you cannot tame the state. You can only injure it temporarily.
Today is election day in Egypt. The electoral contest has divided Egyptians in every way that electoral politics always divides people: by opinion. People are attacked by others who insist that their party and their candidate is the right one to impose his will on 80m people. The greatest tragedy is that Egyptians have been so deeply indoctrinated by thousands of years of despotic rule that they believe the incoming president needs to be “a strong man”: a man who will force everyone to do everything he says. His subjects will have to hope he wants and knows how to get the best for everyone else. Well, it is possible. But it has not happened very often.
Egyptians threaten to protest again—a “second revolution”—if things do not go as they believe it should. But they are fooling themselves. The past 8 months or more have already shown that Egyptians, like everyone else, will be divided by those in power. Those who voted for whoever becomes president will stand by him, and will tell everyone else why they were right. It is simple psychology: if I voted for him, he must be good. I suggest Egyptians put aside their unhealthy craving for big government and consider life without it.
As I said elsewhere, freedom for Egyptians is still possible. Everything the government does you can do yourselves. It means taking responsibility for your community and working together, rather than hoping the state will come along to fix your problems. Here is one idea. Instead of relying on police for security, why not organise neighrbourhood groups that agree to protect each other? If you live in a reasonably wealthy community, you can pay people. When you pay people and can stop paying them if you want, you become their customers, and they do what you want or they lose your money. The government is not like that, because you have to pay. The police are not accountable to you but to their bosses, the politicians. If you do not have the money to pay for people to protect you, you probably need protection from the police more than any other groups. All that is required is some agreement, organisation and cooperation. Together you can solve your own problems in ways that the state will never do for you. That is what free people do.
I know you and your peers can think of other ideas. Remember the Revolution. Unite in the face of repression.
Having lived in Cairo for the past six months, I can honestly say I have come to love it. I love the hundreds of people I know here, and have enjoyed the company of the thousands of wonderful Egyptians I have talked with. I came in April, in the wake of the violence that killed over 800 people, in the hopes that the message of freedom espoused by the protesters that brought down Mubarak would continue, and the people would reap the benefits of having liberated themselves. Unfortunately, the message has grown cold, and Egyptians are still slaves.
The protest movement has lost its unity. When people are unified by a few narrow ideals and goals, they can accomplish amazing things. Unfortunately, they often have the wrong ideas. Revolutions do not always have worthwhile outcomes. They often mean the transfer of power from one group of uncaring elites to another. The French, Cuban and Iranian revolutions, for instance, were popular revolutions for freedom against corrupt dictatorships, but a small group of cunning ideologues surfed the wave of discontent and positioned themselves as the alternative. Being little more than “not the last guy”, they were cheered into power. The people ended up living under regimes that were different but not significant improvements. The reason was, the people themselves had the wrong ideas.
The Egyptian Revolution (if that word is in fact appropriate) is different from the French, Cuban and Iranian revolutions, notwithstanding the possible election of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the coming elections. In Egypt, the head of the regime was removed but it grew a new head immediately as the military took over. The military stood neutral during the three weeks of violence in January and February; a smart strategic move, as it turned out, because it was able to side with whichever group won the battle. One message of the time was “the people and the army are one hand”. That slogan has become a sad joke, as witnessed by the thousands of military trials for peaceful protesters and the lack of any progress on the revolution’s demands. People are still being locked up for nothing, churches are still being burned with impunity, and the hopes I heard in the voices of those I met when I had just arrived have largely faded. The countless demonstrations against the transitional military government have been in vain. Egypt is still a police state.
In the past twenty years, democracy has become the ideal that all nations are supposed to desire and gravitate toward. The main reason they have done so is that the US has consistently spread its message, and as the winner of the Cold War and the uncontested superpower, was free to do so all around the world for the past two decades. But democracy was supposed to be about advancing freedom, which is why the two words are often spoken in the same breath. It has not advanced freedom. It has brought a veneer of legitimacy to the same rule by elites under whose rule most of the world’s people are still subject. Freedom only comes to those who demand it and take it and defend it. Those who do not appreciate or defend their freedom lose it, slowly but surely. Take the modern United States, a country which many Egyptians seem to hold as ideal. Since the American Revolution, Americans have become complacent, too fat and happy to care what their government does. As a result, government power runs unchecked and the people are no longer free. Hundreds of thousands of people live in prison, many for nothing more than smoking something the state has deemed illegal because it threatens the profits of big corporations. Americans go to jail and get beaten every day for protesting, filming policemen beating people, or feeding the homeless. Is this freedom? No, but it is democracy.
The elites will try to divide you. They will try to divide you by religion, class and political views, and then tell you you need a strong government to protect you from foreign devils. But your fight should not be among yourselves, or with foreigners. The only group with the power and motive to take away your freedom is the state. Do not fall for the lies. Do not succumb to the simplistic divisions they will try to impose on you. Educating yourselves is a vaccine against hatred. Action is antithetical to tyranny.
But freedom is still possible. There are ways to attain it for everyone, but they are not easy, and they take time. Voting will not bring it about, as a vote in an election means supporting a system based on violence. Why give your consent to be ruled by people who only want to take your money and your freedom, people who see you as producers for their own benefit, people who will not care about you, however much support you give them? You do not need rulers. Everything the government does, you can find solutions for yourselves. Work together to solve your own problems. Defy the state and its violence. Expose the bankruptcy of the state’s claims to protect and represent you, like you did in January. Educate yourselves on the philosophy of liberty and the practice of civil disobedience. And most importantly, continue to spread and live the message of freedom.
Egyptians, if you want to be free, take down the whole government, not just its head. Otherwise, in a generation’s time there will be a second metro station called Al Shohadaa (martyrs), and it will be named after your children.
Special interest groups are a major part of where our money goes and where our laws come from. If you think government is the collective will of the people, and the reason we have all these laws and government programmes is because they are what the people as a whole have decided on, or that they are for the good of the people, you are sorely misguided.
Here is how it works. A politician’s incentives are for votes and money. They have the ability to hand out taxpayer money and laws that benefit the few at the expense of the many. If a group has enough voters or enough money, it has what politicians most want. That means it can get what it wants from politicians. Special interests and government form a symbiotic relationship—you help me get reelected or give a bunch of money when I leave office, and I will give you various benefits at the taxpayers’, or consumers’, or small business owners’, expense.
If I take a dollar from you, and then I do it to a million other people, and I give that million dollars to one guy, what will happen? The one guy is really happy, and he is more powerful now, so he has more influence over me. You, on the other hand, will barely notice your missing dollar. Repeat this process about a million times and you will have some idea where your taxes are going.
These subsidies, or favourable laws, or whatever lobbyists demand in return for guaranteeing the stagnant political status quo, do not just hurt your paycheque. The fishing industry, for instance, gets an estimated $20b in handouts every year. Because the politically powerful (as opposed to the friendly fisherman on the fish sticks package) get the money, they fish longer, in larger quantities and farther away than ever before. These subsidies distort market prices for fish, as the reduced fish stocks should mean higher prices, which would reduce demand and probably let fish stocks return to sustainable levels. But the subsidies encourage overfishing, and as a result, fish stocks are collapsing worldwide. (1)
We all agree that special interest groups have too much power. But why do our democratically-elected-and-thus-accountable-to-us politicians never do anything that puts a meaningful dent in that problem? Let’s ask the money what it wants.
Official lobbying spending in the US increased from $1.44b in 1998 to $3.5b in 2010. The number of lobbyists (again, officially) employed tops 14,000. (2) Lobbying members of Congress on behalf of the financial sector has sped up since the 2008 crash. (3) Do you think the lobbyists want protection for the existing players in their industry? Do you think that kind of protection will benefit the consumers? After GM received a $50b government bailout, it increased its lobbying efforts. According to the Wall Street Journal, GM “joined other auto makers in urging the White House to back off a proposal that could require auto makers’ vehicle fleets to get an average 62 miles a gallon by 2025, and to instead adopt less ambitious standards.” (4) A month or two later, the WSJ said the US government is likely to lose billions on the sale of GM stock it purchased when GM was having trouble. (5) But then the White House was never very good at market timing. Whenever you want to know why a massive handout, bailout, nationalisation, strange law (or even an innocuous-sounding one) got passed, you can be sure there is a special interest group behind it.
Some US presidents’ farewell addresses seem to present ideas to future generations that achieve the opposite of their intent. George Washington, for instance, warned entangling alliances, and the US has entangled itself with Israel. (I strongly recommend The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Feel free to brush aside the cobwebs that they are “anti-semites”: all their data is well documented.) A century and a half later, Dwight Eisenhower warned against the pernicious effects of the military-industrial complex. Did his speech save American democracy? Millions go from the war industry to electoral candidates. (6) No-bid contracts to rebuild warzones shaken up by a US invasion regularly go to well-connected firms (7). The 2010 election was a particularly generous year for defense corporations, giving twice as much as they did only 8 years earlier. The war in Afghanistan continues to rage; drone strikes on Pakistan have increased (the aerospace sector is the biggest defense donor (8); Boeing is practically the right hand of the US air force (9), and in addition to contracts receives billions in subsidies (10)); and now the US is in an open-ended commitment in Libya. Washington’s addiction to war may have several causes, and a all-too happy dealer is clearly one of them.
But even if we cut all those other handouts, surely we shouldn’t do away with farm subsidies, right? Farmers need that to live! Consumers need that to eat! In the US, $15b a year goes from public coffers to farmers. That, like all government spending figures, does not account for the salaries and pensions of bureaucrats employed to administer that money. The top 10% richest farmers got 74% of the benefits, because they are connected to big, corporate farms with major lobbying power (11); and of course, the more money you get, the more lobbying power you have. (Trace some of the tens of millions spent by agribusiness lobbying the US federal government here.) Moreover, the public generally believes that, without farm subsidies, we would run out of food. Do they not realise if there is a market for something, it will get made? Food and land prices are up and rising, which means that farmers will make more money regardless of subsidies. In fact, subsidies can lead to shortages, as those receiving them no longer need to produce anything. People who realise all this, from left to right, believe that we should end such wasteful subsidies. But the government will not listen to a few pundits. Receiving taxpayer money has nothing to do with need and everything to do with power.
US democracy is not the only place representation is hobbled by lobbyists (European governments fund groups so they can lobby for more funding! (12)): it is in the nature of government to take other people’s money and give it to whomever they, in their unquestioned wisdom, see fit.
So we should end government handouts, right? How? You would not get millions of people to a rally to end some specific subsidy or law, because each person would barely feel the difference (and the government would not give the money back to them anyway: it would give it to other interest groups). You could attempt such a rally to end all subsidies in general, but there are too many people getting rich off them who would stand in your way. Politicians rarely have the spines to stand up to special interests because if they alienate one group, they lose a bloc of voters, get smeared in the press and get no benefit from it. They have little incentive to give you back your money.
Politicians are beholden to special interests. It’s another example of the endless cycle of all democratic politics: socialism for the rich. No amount of reform will change it, because if you give people power over other people’s money, they will use it to gain benefits for themselves. The answer is not to let anybody have that power, and not let anybody take your money, because only you can decide what is right to do with it. As long as government is around, that is not an option.
What is government capable of? What does it do that is indispensable? What benefits does it bring? What difference does voting make? If you answered “nothing” or “none” to all of these questions, you might be cynical, but you might be right. To everyone else, you could be a political activist, or you could be a devout political escapist.
As government has grown over the centuries, it has taken control of more and more areas of human life. Everything that is not illegal is regulated and taxed. There is no free market, because there is no area of human life literally free of government intervention. As a result, citizens have come to believe that government can and should solve all of their problems. Climate change? Don’t ask people to change voluntarily: force them to. Crime? Don’t let people own guns; the government will prevent crime. Disease? People cannot prevent anything themselves, so the government must hand out the vaccines. Market crash? The government will bail us out. Natural disasters? Don’t worry: the government will be along soon.
Such thinking is similar to religious faith. Religious faith assumes that something for which there is no evidence exists. Belief that government protects your life, for example, is based on government claims that it does so. Your government protects you from foreign enemies with its military, right? But wars are nearly always initiated by political elites and lobby groups. If not for them, wars would be little more than feuds. Instead, government justifies taking your money and your freedom and provides you with glimpses of submarines and fighter jets in the name of keeping you safe from non-existent enemies.
The religious faith shines when people listen to their favourite politician. They list the issues they are concerned about and then explain how their messiah will come down and resolve them. They watch with rapt attention, they clap and they cry. They rationalise failures and blame everything on their guy’s opponents. Damn Party B! It’s all your fault! Party A would never do anything bad.
Government has not solved any of the problems it has not caused itself, and has perpetuated many more. Governments have no interest in solving problems, because if the agencies and departments and programs created to deal with them end, government control over that part of life ends. Spending would have to decrease as well, reducing the number of reasons governments have for high taxes. There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.
Like religion, politics is full of illusions that we swallow because we want to believe. Protection or safety are just the bones thrown by the political class. You pay our salaries, we will throw you the protection bone. Likewise, the middle and lower classes can have an education bone and we will take many times that amount to cover military adventures overseas. Have a health care bone (because only government could possibly provide health care) in return for paying farm lobbyists. Health care is not perfect: it might benefit from more money, so we could cancel farm subsidies and put that money into public health, but not enough people think it would be a good idea, so we do not. The government throws just enough bones that most people shut up and believe in democracy.
The same faulty logic goes into our belief in the ability of politicians or politics to save the economy. There is no doubt that an organisation with trillions of dollars at its disposal affects the incentives in society, but the great illusion is that the downtrodden believe politicians when they promise to get the economy back on track. However, no one, including politicians, can control markets without destroying them (eg. under communism). The evidence is all around. The government contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis by enacting legislation making it easier for Americans to buy homes they could not afford. When the economy went belly up, the brightest economic minds in the land did not save it. They only made the bankers richer.
Like religion, democrats are so keen on their ideology that they want to export and even impose it on others. As soon as there is a crisis in an authoritarian state, some democrats rush in and push for a new government. This place needs to become a democracy, so that we, the ones who possess the revealed truth, can remake this society in our own image. However, when a new government is encouraged, it is sometimes no better than the last. What is needed in these situations is a grassroots political culture of self-reliance, so that government is redundant. Afghanistan is an obvious case of people who reject central government, and do just fine without it, but are having to fight against its imposition on them. Do not expect the bloodshed there to end while democrats are promoting their inappropriate model of coercive, centralised institutions on Afghanis.
The culture war in the US is of particular interest. The so-called liberal, so-called conservative divide is over how to use government power to coerce people into morality. Conservatives believe that government cannot eliminate poverty, discrimination, guns, smoking and drinking. However, when it’s time to fight crime, abortion, drugs, foreign dictators, or anything else Christ would be against, we need more money and we can save the world. When the government fails to deliver, it is because not enough money was allocated for it, or because of too much liberal opposition. Liberals, on the other hand, think it is silly to try to eliminate crime, drugs and dictators with the government; but they are more than happy to use the government to fight poverty, discrimination, gun ownership, etc., etc.
So what is politics good for anymore? It provides money and power for politicians. It helps provide the public with the illusion that caring people are in control of its security. It holds back cultural evolution for a short while. If politicians tell you they are doing anything other than that, they are probably lying.
They are not even capable of agreeing on subjects all of the rest of us believe in. There is a wide consensus in our society that climate change is bad and should be avoided. Yet “leaders” who met in Copenhagen not long ago to fix the climate problem left empty handed. It is shameful, but not surprising. But at least they got a nice vacation out of it.
The great illusions of democracy are that democracy means freedom, elections mean progress, the right candidate will make the world better, governments have to and do take care of you, war is for humanitarian purposes and law protects people rather than the state.
In today’s world, we should look beyond traditional electoral politics as the key to solving problems and start looking at how we can organise ourselves and others to change the things we can. Many people, of course, already realise this, which is why there are so many NGOs. Here we have initiated people who did not wait patiently for politicians to get round to ending poverty.
At least as important, your dollar is your vote. Every dollar you spend goes to someone else. Is that person going to spend your money in a way you approve of? Could your money be better spent if given to someone else? These are the choices we make every day that affect others. If we buy jewelry, we might be perpetuating war in the Congo. If we give money to the food bank, we might be helping people get back on their feet.
I have some suggestions for those who follow politics with baited breath. First, stop voting. If you vote, you encourage the people who are taking away your freedom and giving you illusions in return. They will promise you the moon, take it away from you and then give you a small piece of it back. Meanwhile, your friends and acquaintances will try to convert you to their party, because the more people agree with you, the more right you can think you are. Do not fall for it. Shuffling any number of empty suits around the seats of power only matters if one of them is going to change the system fundamentally, and none of them ever will.
Second, stop reading or watching political news. Either it will get you angry, because your issues are not being addressed in the way you want, or you will receive the false hope that things are getting better; and when they do not, you will be all the more disappointed. Besides, since voting does not matter, the day to day catcalling and empty legislation of party politics is meaningless. If you do hear about a huge spending increase, a tax increase, a deficit increase or a ridiculous new law, think about how it will affect you personally, then laugh it off as typical.
Third, shed the beliefs that politicians–any politicians–are looking out for you. They are looking out for themselves. You are nothing more than tools to help them achieve their dreams of power. Inasmuch as you can, disengage from politics and refuse to support those who would exploit you. We should educate ourselves and each other on the most effective ways we can make a difference in the world around us with our money and our voices.
A guy named Stephen F. Roberts once said “We are all atheists. Some of us just believe in fewer gods than others. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” I dismiss the god of politics. Become a political atheist and free yourself of the illusions of politics.
Allow me to quote an editorial by the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s two national newspapers, from April 27, 2011.
We are nearing the end of an unremarkable and disappointing election campaign, marked by petty scandals, policy convergences and a dearth of serious debate. Canadians deserved better. We were not presented with an opportunity to vote for something bigger and bolder, nor has there been an honest recognition of the most critical issues that lie ahead: a volatile economy, ballooning public debts and the unwieldy future of our health-care system.
The real question is, how could we have expected more? History is repeating itself, and has done every election for decades. If you are disappointed, you have not been paying attention.
Citizens of democracies like to feel that they are in charge. After all, every so often they decide who gets to sit in government, and government is in charge of everything. There is little reason to be so cocky.
Most people do not understand politics and government very well. That is simply a fact. How could they? They have other things to do besides study politics, economics, law, philosophy, congressional voting records, campaign contributors, and everything else they would need to make an informed decision. They form strong opinions on things they do not understand. And then they go vote. These are the same people who believe 10% of the US government budget is spent on foreign aid, when in reality it is closer to 1%. (More here on the consequences of the uninformed voter.) Reading the newspapers and listening to candidates speak do NOT make you an informed voter.
Here is something else voters might not know: you as an individual are more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the polling station than you are to make a difference in a federal election. Perhaps the solution is, as many a disappointed democrat stresses, to get more people out to vote. But they would vote for the same people and the same system. Doing so would not address the problems with elections.
To win an election or nomination to the head of a political party, you need to be competitive, ruthless, and know how to play voter ignorance like a violin. If politicians were wise and benevolent, there would be no need for elections. We could trust them to do what is right. But since they consistently do not do what they say they will do, turn out to be corrupt and incompetent, we need elections to vote them out. So we vote out Guy A and vote in Guy B, because Guy B promises change. But then Guy B ends up being just as corrupt and incompetent as Guy A! Am I the only one who considers this an exercise in futility, to say the least?
But people don’t get it. They say things like, “democracy is good because we have choices.” Yes, you have a tiny percentage of a say in which of a few people that you do not know very well will impose his or her policies and taxes on you, in which person’s salary and retirement benefits you are forced to pay for, but you do not have much choice in anything else. The only real choice you have is obey or go to jail.
Elections seem to legitimise democracy because people get a say in politics once in a few years. I argue that elections reveal how meaningless democracy is. Millions get together to vote and nothing changes. The politicians who demand action do nothing. All the same pointless policies get shuffled around. And voters have the same complaints about every government in every election: they don’t listen to us, they don’t do what we want them to do, they don’t solve our problems. It is the same thing every single time. Do you really think this next election will make anything better?
Elections do not force governments to do what the people want them to do. Let’s say there is a broad consensus in the US to end the war in Afghanistan. 75% of Americans from both parties (as if there is much difference between the two) believe it is time to end the war. It does not matter which party you vote for—either one will make their priority the ending of the war in Afghanistan. This is where democracy’s being better than dictatorship as a way to get things done ends. Because, if there is no consensus on the other issues, the government, whichever party forms it, will spend the rest of its time in office rewarding campaign contributors and enriching friends.
As such, the platform you voted for, or begged for, did not mean squat. Whatever politicians say while campaigning does not matter, because they are going to change their minds when they gain power anyway. One reason is that it was never about the electoral platform. The platform is a PR document and little more. Another reason is that politicians are constrained by a host of factors, which remain the same regardless of who is in the White House. They are wined and dined by the same special interest groups, including innumerable business lobbies, lawyers, public and private sector unions, the bureaucracy, the AARP, the Israel lobby, etc. As Will Durant said, “the political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.”
Have you ever passed by some pathetic-looking wretch in the street with his hand out? That’s you. Elections are like begging. Please, government, end this war, please change this law, please give me a tax cut. The only difference between voters and beggars is that voters have already given their money, and through voting they are begging for some of it back.
I suggest not voting at all. When you vote, you are encouraging a system of coercion. You are voting to perpetuate the system of violence you live under and have no power over. And no candidate will end that system. (I think George Carlin would have agreed.)
The alternative is to educate oneself and others as to the nature of this system, so that the people will realise it does not work and decide to change it from the bottom up.
Do you want power? Do you want to control other people? What if you had the opportunity to force people to do what you wanted? Would you take it? Do you think you know better than others about how to spend their money? If so, what if you could take other people’s money? What would you do with it? If you think these things are wrong, why are they right when governments do them? Governments, because they can do these things, because they’ve been given these powers, they do. This is the problem of power.
Who is it that wants power most? Psychologists estimate that roughly 1% of the human population is psychopathic. In other words, for every hundred people you know, one of them has no empathy, no concern for other people, no sense of guilt, no compunction about lying, will use others to gain money and power and will use violence against enemies. Psychopaths could be the people who continually lash out. These people are sometimes easy to identify and should be locked up or killed. But psychopaths might also be very smart, crafty people. A reasonable fear related to anarchy is that, in a free society, these people will form violent or at least smooth-talking groups that attempt to impose their will on others. However, if the people believe that no one should impose their will on others, they will unify to resist and perhaps lock up or kill these psychopaths. But governmental societies have far more to fear. At present, there are legal ways to gain power, which means that any of these smart psychopaths who want power can attain it, and the people have to do whatever they want. It might seem unlikely that could happen in our society—after all, we live in a democracy, where elections are supposed to weed out the people who are not fit to lead. But elections do not do that. They reward charismatic people, people who look good on television, people who flatter their subjects, people who make endless promises, and people who know how to use others to get what they want.
What professions do you think psychopaths, people who want power over others, are likely to go into? Presumably, they will enter politics, the military and the police. If these institutions had some kind of psycho-detectors, they might be more trustworthy. They do not. Jim Kouri, vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, explains that the characteristics of psychopaths, again, charm, lying, no empathy or guilt and so on, are shared by politicians.
[T]hese same traits exist in men and women who are drawn to high-profile and powerful positions in society including political officeholders…. [S]ome of the character traits exhibited by serial killers or criminals may be observed in many within the political arena. While not exhibiting physical violence, many political leaders display varying degrees of anger, feigned outrage and other behaviors. They also lack what most consider a ‘shame’ mechanism. Quite simply, most serial killers and many professional politicians must mimic what they believe, are appropriate responses to situations they face such as sadness, empathy, sympathy, and other human responses to outside stimuli.
(See also here.)
There are varying degrees of psychopathy; and of course not everyone who wants power is a psychopath. He might just be some well-meaning person who doesn’t realise that the initiation of force is an immoral and counterproductive way to make the world a better place. But power tends to corrupt, as not only Lord Acton’s maxim but research indicates. To be successful politicians, people need to adopt the smooth talk, the lying, the denial of responsibility, the control of their consciences necessary for success in politics. And these things get worse the longer they remain in politics and defend their actions. People in power become more impulsive, more convinced of their greatness and less sympathetic. They also lose certain inhibitions. Power leads to more risk taking. When an individual without political power takes risks and fails, they affect him and his family. When a corporate executive takes risks and fails, wealth and jobs are destroyed. When the politically powerful take risks and fail, we get world war and economic crisis.
Saint Bonaventura, a 13th century theologian, once said “the higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of its behind.” In other words, the more power a man amasses, the further he is from social constraints. People want power because it creates, or seems to create, freedom of action, and control of others. But if often brings vanity, worry about how long power will be enjoyed, fantasy about how benign its holder is, and the desire to use that power to gain more. As Frans de Waal says in his excellent book Good Natured: the Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, “Few people have the discipline to handle this drug.” And winning an election or otherwise forming the government is a great way to get high.
I find it ironic that all democrats I have ever met complain about their governments sometimes or all the time but most believe that we just need to reform it. We just need a couple more elections. We just need more people voting, or taking an interest in politics. We need more accountability and the right people in power. They have dreams of incorruptible supermen following strict rules, doing exactly what the people want. Sorry friends, that system and those people do not exist. Almost everyone who gains power could be corrupted by it, and no one you elect will do everything you want. And whatever your fantasy of strong, accountable government is, the term is an oxymoron. The stronger government gets, the less accountable it is.
Politicians are mostly just concerned with power. In the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours world of politics, when powerful groups that a politician can reward by doling out public money to or protecting with laws come along with their hands out, they usually get what they want. You, as a voter, by the way, are not powerful. If you are a not member of a well-connected pressure group, you have no voice. In the words of Gordon Gekko, “if you’re not inside, you’re outside.” Insiders have hold of the reins of state, which means they can force you to follow their directives, dictated by their whims, and outsiders have to beg to have them changed.
No one should be given power over others—not me, not you and especially not someone who wants it.
Sometimes when I advocate the abolition of government, democrats will say, “if you don’t like it, move to Somalia!” Or sometimes you get “go live in the woods!” What they are admitting with this comment, besides a closed mind and an ignorance of the philosophy they are condemning with such conviction, is that the only way you can be free of the violence of the state is hide from it. We’ll talk more about Somalia another day. For now, let’s talk about democracy.
First, we should talk about this belief some people have about democracy that a democratic government is the collective will of the people, and that congress or parliament is the talking shop for organising society and getting things done collectively. Sorry to be so blunt, but that is a very naïve point of view. If it were true, then government would be where we make suggestions of what we should do as a society and try to find the best information and use it to help each other. If it were true, congresspeople would actively elicit opinions from the people, rather than from special interest groups. If it were true, there would be no compulsion. But there is. Government forces you to do everything it says. Every time a law is passed, that is a new order for you to follow.
Force changes everything. Force is the reason government does not have to do what you want, in other words why it is not accountable. Force is why government is not and does not have to be efficient, because if you do not like it, you cannot change it. Sure, you could vote for a different party, but when was the last time that made government efficient, or stop lying, or stop promising things it had no intention of delivering? Force is the reason no one can control government spending: government has the power to take as much of your money as it wants. And force is the reason we cannot opt out of anything the government does: if you live in this country (and that is almost every country), you pay and you obey. It is not we as a society who have decided, but they as a small group who have, and elections will not change that. The sad thing is that most of us do not see the gun pointed at us, and even respect the people holding it.
It’s too bad that the government is so desperate to squeeze every last drop of tax milk it can from us cattle, and so afraid that independence from its cold hands will expose the naked emperor whose rule we are simply not allowed to opt out of. It’s even sadder that democrats think that’s a good thing. Through their support of government, democrats promote violence against me and you and everyone. Call me crazy, but I think a more moral, free and peaceful society would be one where we could choose where our money goes, what services we pay for and receive, and where the natural laws of reciprocity, cooperation and competition replace violently forcing us to do whatever a small clique of elites tells us to.
Because democracies have more freedom than dictatorships, people’s ideas stop there, and democracy is good enough. But democrats tend to believe that we need government, because without it we would have chaos, we would be killing each other, we would be dominated by Nazis or something like that. I don’t think so. If the people agree that there should be no government, it will be because they realise they do not want to be forced to comply with the whims of a small group of self-interested, power-hungry incompetents. They will defend themselves against tyranny, closing the power vacuum and living contentedly with real freedom.
Now, remember, anarchy can only come when voluntary institutions take the place of government ones, which will take time. A sudden implosion of government would not be a good thing. A gradual replacement of it would.
But democrats don’t get that. Democrats are people who believe that initiating force against innocent people is okay, as long as the results of that force are perceived to go toward some kind of “greater good”. Most people think they know what’s best for society. Democrats believe that their version of the truth, whatever it is, should be forced on everyone else, however much of other people’s money it costs. So democrats want their guy to gain power and so they can push their beliefs on everyone else. If we did away with government and the popularity contests of elections, no one would force you to follow their favourite policies, and you wouldn’t be so angry whenever your party loses.
But even if somehow you believe initiating force is legitimate, in which case I question your morals, it does not seem very wise to me to fall for the illusion that your “representatives” actually represent you, that politicians are who they say they are and who the media say they are. Have you ever noticed that whenever the person you elect gets into office, they do a couple of things you like and a whole bunch of things you don’t like? Do you think it’s because you just picked the wrong guy?
And yet, even though unaccountability to constituents is pretty much an iron law of democratic politics, people often stick by their guy. I can see two reasons for that. First, a lot of the things politicians do that we don’t like, we don’t find about. How much time has your local representative spent meeting with lobby groups? How did he vote on the last five bills? How could you know? You have better things to do than track his every step. Second, humans, yes, me too, tend to believe that most things we do are right, and we become more and more convinced those things were right over time. That is how we can stand up for people we voted for in the face of any kind of miscreant behaviour. But that behaviour continues, and it will continue, because any time you give someone that much power, they don’t need to listen to the people who gave it to them anymore.
Democracy is outsourcing problems like education, health care and security to an institution with such a long record of corruption, inefficiency and incompetence that, if it were a business competing in a free market, would never win another contract. But the government does not compete in a free market. It is a monopoly kept in place by force.
And because government is so powerful, the struggle for the reins of government leads to conflict. It may only be conflict between friends, as they can’t agree on the right parties and policies; or it might mean violent power struggles such as the ones created in the vacuum of power created in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. That kind of situation is not anarchic because there is still a government, but the seats are empty. If there is a government structure that people can take control of, they will fight over it.
How could an election or a national government decision possibly represent the will of the people when it leaves them divided? People tend to say that there are certain decisions that can only be taken on a national level. But why do we need a nation at all? The historical evidence shows that nations themselves are creations of elites to consolidate their power over the widest possible territory, and are kept in place by feelings of nationalism spread by contemporary elites. If you disagree, I suggest the books Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, Nations and Nationalism by Ernest Gellner or Nations and Nationalism since 1780 by Eric Hobsbawm. It might be for nationalist pride that democracies, though they rarely attack each other, tend to be more aggressive toward other states than undemocratic regimes. Democracies often adopt a crusading spirit that they feel gives them the right or even duty to kill all terrorists, overthrow undemocratic regimes, and promote democracy, however many people have to die.
But back to decision making. Perhaps a better idea would be to let local communities and neighbourhoods decide things. Then, at least it would be more reasonable to ask people to move if they do not like the laws. It would also mean that those who plunder the public coffers would be shunned by their neighbours, a major disincentive to anti-social behaviour. But the ideal is probably to let people decide as individuals. Only individuals can decide what is right for themselves, and since each individual represents him or herself, the sum total of their decisions is the closest we can get to the collective will of the people.
Elections and political parties cost a lot of money, they are terribly divisive, they don’t bring you freedom, and they rarely change anything. It is rather unusual to see democrats happy with the outcome of an election, and satisfied with the government for more than a few months. I guess they accept it with the hope that one day, some time, my party will win, and then things will get better. If that day never comes, please consider the voluntarist alternative.