Politics is inseparable from government. Indeed, it is government.
Iconoclast filmmaker and political activist Oliver Stone spoke at the international conference of Students for Liberty last February in Washington, D.C. The common ground between Stone and most libertarians is his outspoken criticism of American militarism abroad, not just by conservative Republicans but also by left-wing Democrats such as President Obama.
But where libertarians differ with Stone, and differ profoundly, is I think more interesting and instructive. Stone sounds like a man disenchanted with politics but still enamored of government. So he decries interventionism abroad but approves of the violent interventions of the Chavez (now Maduro) regime in its own country. He seems to believe politics, particularly dirty politics, can be separated from government.
But intervening is what big government does, domestically or abroad.
Admiration, Disenchantment, and Betrayal
Stone was, as I mentioned, harshly critical of President Obama and what Stone said he felt was the President’s backpedaling on his campaign promises. At the same time, Stone expressed strong support for the current regime in Venezuela and the United Socialist Party’s violent clampdown on antigovernment protesters, referring to the latter as “poor sports” for trying to overturn what he deems a democratically elected government. (But see this open letter to Oliver Stone that was delivered to him during the conference.)
To condemn violent intervention by the United States government in foreign affairs while supporting violent intervention by Venezuela’s government in its domestic affairs is an inconsistency obvious to most libertarians. The relative size of the U.S. government and its self-appointed role as world policeman compared to Venezuela’s much more modest size and limited role in Latin America might be part of the reason why Stone opposes one and approves of the other.
But underlying Stone’s disgust for President Obama, whom he supported over two elections, was a sense of betrayal, that Obama as President must live in a very different world from Obama as candidate.
Deceive for the Sake of the Task
Stone is not alone in his disenchantment with President Obama. The President’s approval rating has reached an all-time low and Democrats are worried about the potential drag on midterm elections. The once-shining candidate and bold politician has lost his luster, especially for those who believed his progressive rhetoric—not only on foreign policy but also on immigration, health care, and surveillance. To be fair, almost every incumbent President loses popularity in the second term. People eventually see that reality doesn’t match rhetoric. But that’s the point: It’s mere rhetoric. Or, to be precise, political rhetoric.
What is political rhetoric? It’s persuasive talk in the service of achieving dominance in the use of violent aggression. It was Carl von Clausewitz who said that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” War and politics are then just different ways of attaining physical dominance. While politics doesn’t ordinarily involve open violence (at least not in wealthier countries in recent decades), rhetoric in the service of politics does include lying. If initiating physical violence is an acceptable means—actually it’s the means—of engaging in war, lying and distortion are its relatively peaceful partners. That’s why the State is often defined as the agency that has a legitimate monopoly over aggression and fraud. Like physical violence, some argue that lying and deception can serve the common good: for example, telling people, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” in order to get Obamacare passed. Plato claimed that a “Noble Lie,” about the origins of a nation, for example, may be necessary to maintain social harmony. But such lies, he says, are best left to the elite rather than commoners.
Keeping the truth from potential enemies is just as important as keeping weapons from them. Politics, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, involves “activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of a government or getting and keeping power in a government.” Lying and deception are essential to politics and politics is inseparable from government. Or, as Jane Jacobs wrote in her brilliant book Systems of Survival, one of the basic rules of government is to “deceive for the sake of the task.”
House of Cads
When government is limited to a few tasks, the need for and scope of deception are also limited. The more the government does, however, the bigger the role deception plays in its daily activities. As the NSA scandal illustrates, government spies on citizens and then lies about it.
Although the American government has not yet reached the scope of collectivist central planning that F. A. Hayek targeted in The Road to Serfdom, much of what he writes there is applicable to it, mutatis mutandis. I specifically have in mind his famous chapter 10, “Why the Worst Get on Top,” the central point of which is that the more detailed the plan the State seeks to impose on its citizens, the more ruthless and expedient its executioners must be if it is to succeed. This is why the most ruthless and unprincipled have the advantage in the struggle for political power. What separates President Obama, or any other recent American president, from someone like President Vladimir Putin of Russia is a matter of degree, not of kind. To paraphrase Lord Acton, not only does power tend to corrupt, but absolute power tends to attract the absolutely corrupt. Frank Underwood, the protagonist of the television drama House of Cards, is an excellent, though of course fictional, illustration of exactly that tendency.
Politics is inseparable from government, indeed it is government, and the bigger the government, the bigger the role of politics. As they say, politics is a feature, not a bug.
ABOUT SANDY IKEDA
Sandy Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism. He will be speaking at the FEE summer seminars “People Aren’t Pawns” and “Are Markets Just?“