November 07, 2003

Friday Ranting

Posted by Curt at 02:47 PM in Politics | TrackBack

Very interesting article today in a publication of which until today I did not know the existence, the Mises Review (connected, naturally enough, with the Ludwig von Mises Institute). I don't know how much the article shares in common with the political beliefs of von Mises himself, but it seems to be pretty consistent with the outlook of most of the people that read this blog and at least one of the authors. I think it might do to examine a couple of the assertions that the reviewer claims to attribute to Gordan Graham, the author of the book in question (I have not read the book, so I haven't an opinion about how well these views are actually represented). One that strikes me is the claim that because the police or the various security apparati of the state cannot actually physically impose compliance with the law on the majority of the citizens of a state, law-abiding citizens must obey the law out of a personal moral conviction about the rightness of the law. I don't by any means think that this follows. Citizens might obey the law out of any number of reasons: fear of the law and prosecution even if the police are not actually present, deference to parents, family, community church, etc., or simply a lack of imagination or initiative, which I think may be the most fundamental explanation.

In any case, author and/or reviewer seem to implicitly state through this contention that the material interests of the citizen lie so clearly in outside the law that only strong moral impulse could restrain them from breaking it at will. But this is also by no means certain. There has always been a strand in political philosophy at least from the time of Rousseau that has seen the state, if genuinely representative of its citizens' interests, as beneficial not through enforcement of morality but purely for the material advantages it confers on its citizens. Security and comfort is the usual justification, though I think that freedom from anxiety might be a more accurate description. This is an advantage not to be underestimated; the recent pioneering psychological work in economics has more or less confirmed that most people fear the loss of current possessions more than they desire the gain of new possessions.

But one not need accept the value of the state for material reasons to understand that people often self-regulate themselves in regards to the law out of extra-moral considerations. Self-censorship is one example; traffic laws are another. Traffic laws are a particular favorite of libertarians everywhere because they seem in general not to have a plausible moral justification for their existence. But nonetheless people generally hold themselves close enough to the speed limit, for example, so as to not to have much to fear if they pass by a highway patrol car, despite the statistical improbability of being stopped during any given drive. In general I don't imagine this to be because the average driver considers speeding to be immoral, because many people speed slightly. However, the negative reprecussions of getting a ticket seem to outweigh the marginal benefit of arriving a few seconds faster at one's destination and, even more directly, most people do not want to put up with the constant anxiety of looking out for the highway patrol. This example is somewhat complicated by the fact that there is a moral argument to be made for speeding laws: the danger one poses to others when driving too fast to remain in control of one's vehicle. Then again, most people do not imagine that they will get in an accident, and if they did that would probably regulate their behavior much more dramatically than considerations of the well-being of other drivers. From this I conclude that most people simply do not have the stomach for crime and that this is the real banal secret of obedience to the law. At the same time, this effect cannot well be separated from the law's continued existence.

Point two relates to a criticism of democracy in particular in both book and review which has been echoed in many places, here included: that voting is essentially meaningless. But in this case a legitimate criticism sweeps reviewer and author along to a fearful bit of nonsense. Because each individual vote in an election of any size (almost) never has a decisive effect on the outcome, this leads them to conclude that no one's vote has any effect. Now, I am perfectly willing to sanction the contention that elections serve as no more than window-dressing which conceal the activity of the career bureaucrats who actually control everything (which, actually, according to the Platonic criticism of democracy cited approvingly in the article, is not necessarily entirely a bad thing--after all, art for the artisan class, agriculture for the farming class and government for the governing class). Yet the idea that no one's vote has any significance in an election is manifestly an absurdity. Even if one particular vote does not have a decisive signficance, the totality of the votes most certainly determines the victor. Here modern egotism certainly introduces a distortion, for there is a distinction between significance and decisive significance. One individual vote certainly does have significance, but not decisive significance. Decisive significance in this context is defined as precisely the number of votes separating the winner and the second-highest vote-getter. But I do not personally understand why this by itself sends so many political thinkers into an exasperated silence. If the candidate for whome one voted wins, what does it matter whether one's vote by itself swung the election? If that candidate loses, one has even less reason to complain, as that vote actually had a greater impact on the chosen candidates' total than had one voted for the winner.

Is all of this simply an arrogant demand for decisive personal power in elections? But if one person always decided an election, the situation would be even less representative. Just ask the Supreme Court--they tend to split 4-4 on all the important issues and with Justice O'Conner go the spoils. Do you think that anyone but Justice O'Conner prefers that situation? Due to the singular significance of her vote, she has become virtually the caudillo of the court. This is the same kind of hubris that surrounds the cult of art today--the idea that any artistic production is entirely the product of the sui generis God-like act of creation of a single artist, which is also an idiocy--Shakespeare, who pinched all of his plots from other works, being only the most obvious counter-example.

In art, as in voting, we are simply deceiving ourselves in extolling or demanding the total sovereignty of a single individual over the artistic or political process, which by the way seems about as anti-democratic in spirit as possible. True populists ought rather to be lauding the relative insignificance of their own votes as proof that power has successfully evaded concentration in the hands of the few. In any case, if the lack of political influence one exerts as a private citizen proves so troubling, the natural solution, aside from joining the political class itself, which involves its own compromises and helplessnesses, would be simply to cease concerning oneself with politics. Oh, the agonies that politicians and citizens put themselves through to pass a single tax bill which will put $10 back in each of their pockets, a sum which they could have earned in an hour working at McDonald's! Does anyone think that they will improve their lot in life through the trickle-down effect of some piece of legislation which doles out some pathetically insignificant financial or social benefit to all of our 250 million citizens? Don't concern yourselves with this, for the decisions you make in the next 10 minutes regarding your personal life, your friends and your family will have more of an effect on your future than all those piles of legislative paper will until the end of history! The only thing that keeps this worthless discipline so smirkingly called political philosophy or, even more amusingly, political science as a topic of earnest discussion are the fevered egoes and intellectual pretentions of its practitioners. Philosophy ought to be either personal or intellectual; political philosophy, which claims to be both, is actually neither.