Don’t Let Politics Smash Your Ideals

Jeffrey A. Tucker

If any good was to come from the November 2016 election – a clean sweep by opponents of Obamacare – it was surely that health care policy could get on a better footing. So far, the cynics have been proven right: the GOP majority and White House have failed at what was arguably their highest legislative priority. And there is nothing voters can do about it.

I’m willing to bet that this will be a pattern for years to come. Why? Because this has been the pattern for years in the past, and there is no ideological consensus for real change. As a result, there is a huge gap between campaign rhetoric and actual policy, between the sales pitch and the good you actually end up purchasing.

Why do people keep buying? And more importantly, is there another way?

The Ruse

At the National Convention of Young Americans for Liberty this year, I once again debated the topic of whether and to what extent people need to be engaged in politics, as versus focusing on education, culture, and other forms of change.

There can be no lasting victory without first building the cultural infrastructure of freedom.My answer is that political engagement is fine. Voting is fine. Cheering is fine. But there is a constant temptation to go too far in the direction of partisan agitation. Putting your hopes in party and power will always disappoint: it is a god that will fail.

Politics, as conventionally understood, I argued, is not an effective way to change the world. Your victories will be pyrrhic if there is not underlying ideological change. More seriously, politics can drain you of ideals, hope, and even be morally corrupting. For young people hoping to end injustice, build a better freedom, and change the world for the better, there are better ways.

My five main points:

  1. Politics is not true. Most books on world history, and most political science classes, wildly exaggerate the role that political leadership and institutions play in shaping history. It’s too easy to tell a story of a people in a way that blames or credits powerful personal forces – as if leadership designs and dictates social results – but much more difficult to tell the real story of history in terms of ideas, culture, and technology. Societies can succeed without brilliant leaders in government, and often do so precisely because of their absence. Even in American history, the highest period of innovation and wealth creation occurred under presidents whose names are now largely forgotten.

  2. Politics is ineffective. People want to rely on the political process for all sorts of things: creating jobs, fixing infrastructure, securing the country, bringing justice, boosting education. But it’s the wrong means. These things can happen despite the state, and not because of it. No politician or party has achieved anything comparable to Amazon, YouTube, Apple, Uber, or a million other enterprises. The best way for a state to promote the good of society is to decline to interfere in people’s life, liberty, and property. The only real good that can come of political activism is to limit the state’s power as much as possible, but it so happens that everything in politics conspires to break those limits.

  3. Politics crushes ideals. You begin your political activism thinking that this is the way you make a difference but it turns out to be a ruse: your views do not matter and your vote counts for little. You are trying to control a machine that is out of your control. Now, you face a choice: keep playing the game even though it is failing your ideals or move on to a sector of life in which you can keep your principles and make genuine change happen, sectors such as education, culture, technology, faith, and enterprise. The main (and maybe only) thing you can really control is yourself, so here is your primary obligation: gaining more skills, knowledge, wisdom, strength of character, and mastery of your domain.

  4. Politics can make you immoral. The state sector produces nothing on its own; it lives off the rest of the society, and thrives on deception. There is no large state not guilty of doing terrible things to people, things that if we did to each other we would be regarded as criminals. Moreover, everyone who has ever been there can tell you there is no such thing as an efficient bureaucracy, “clean” politics, or programs built solely by public-spirited activists. The truth is grittier and uglier than anyone from the outside can ever believe. Discovering this, what do you do? Some people are drawn to it precisely for the moral nihilism it unleashes: if nothing else, the machinery can be used to crush my enemies. It’s like low-grade war in this way.

  5. There is a better way. In fact, there are a million better ways. You can still be a libertarian (or whatever you think of yourself) and do other things with your life besides political agitation. Regimes come and go but technology and ideas last. They are also more powerful than tanks, armies, and bombs: ideas are bulletproof. Make beautiful art, write great prose, compose music, establish productive businesses, save lives in medicine or therapy, or be a great spouse, parent, and friend. They are all better uses of our time on this earth. Understanding the way human liberty works helps you see this. These pursuits need not sacrifice your ideals.

The Other Path

Several young people in the audience came to me after and said my message came as a surprise. It has been the intense political environment of the last several years that got them interested in ideas in the first place. They had come to believe that partisan politics, with the goal of running for office, was the only way they can act on what believe about ourselves in society.

I was so pleased when people thanked me for the message they had never heard before.

Why are people drawn to political solutions? F.A. Hayek hinted at the answer. It is the longing for decisive, lasting, universal solutions to life’s problems. They are looking for an immediate and certain path for making the world a better place. The only basis on which people believe it is good to impose systems by force of law – which is to say, through violence and the threat of violence – is if they have certainty that they have all the right answers. It is people’s impatience with the gradual unfolding of knowledge through iterative experimentation that leads them to demand government solutions.

There is romance in not knowing now what might be known in the future, and a thrill that comes with an awareness that this process will never end. What does it take to come to trust freedom as the way forward? We need to come to love the opportunity for discovery that it creates. The most beautiful feature of the world is that we will never discover it all. We’ll never know all things. We’ll never unwrap all its mysteries. We’ll never fully come to love all lovely things.

There is romance in not knowing now what might be known in the future, and a thrill that comes with an awareness that this process will never end. That constant, daily, unending search for the new, the wonderful, the true, the beautiful, and being surprised to discover each of those features in the smallest things, is what gives our personal history its forward motion, and makes the dawn of every day an invitation to embrace life with ever more anticipation and vigor.

By comparison to that, an overly politicized life – hoping against hope that Congress, the president, or courts will build a future for us – is a dreary and pointless prospect. Truth wrapped in a political solution is ephemeral and probably not true; political solutions interfere with the discovery process that is the very essence of life

The point of discovering the ideas of liberty is fully to realize what liberty (not the state) can do to give us, our families, and communities, indeed the entire world, the opportunity for a better life. And then act on that discovery.

None of which means that we don’t have an obligation to come to the defense of freedom at times when it is relentlessly under assault. But there can be no lasting victory without first building the infrastructure of freedom. That can be, in part, about electing good people and preventing bad people from getting power. Much more, however, it is about changing ideas and cultures so that freedom enjoys protection no matter who holds power.

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