Politics as religion
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.