Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
As followers of the US presidential election can readily attest, few political choices are between good and evil. This is especially true in the large, diverse nations most of us live in, where it is difficult to find unanimous agreement on anything. Try as they must, elections rarely reflect “the will of the people” because what the people want is notoriously hard to discern. It’s why countries such as the United States end up with divided government or with strong disapproval of “the political class” together with the re-election of incumbent politicians. We want political change only if we are certain, which we never are, it will be for the better. So we are simultaneously dissatisfied but stuck with the status quo.
All of which is to say that democratic politics are not rational affairs. No big surprise here. The framers of the American constitution knew that ancient democracies fluctuated between anarchy and tyranny and sought to found government on “the science of politics”. This new science based popular government on representation, the separation of powers, and checks and balances between the branches of government in order to avoid simple majoritarianism or what we now call populism, where a skilled demagogue takes advantage of hardships and resentments to promise “great” things to everyone.
The name “science” gives the impression that this system of government is a rational one, which it partly is, famously based on “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” Political rule based on exploiting the passions or wants of the people had been the rule because the passions proved to be stronger than reason, which should want the common good of all but is never able to achieve it. The challenge was therefore to direct these passions into politically beneficial ways that would achieve a sort of common good, one that would “secure” the natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but not necessarily moral virtue or the salvation of souls. The energies of the people would be directed to commerce rather than politics, to the point where the latter becomes little more than a waste of time and energy for the “industrious and rational”.
The problem is that politics never goes away. We continue to complain about our politicians, expecting them to be disinterested public servants, even though we almost expect them to be corrupt and self-serving. We expect them to at least pretend to care for justice, even as we are deeply divided about what that good consists of. (Perhaps we really are “political animals.”) And we get especially upset when we learn that the system is “rigged” by special interests against the common citizen. There is something fundamentally intransigent about it all.
Further proof of this intransigence came when I recently attended a lecture by the Nobel-laureate economist Angus Deaton, who showed not only how much economic globalization has done to help the poor but also emphasized the dangers posed by “crony capitalism,” a term that was evidently difficult for the Italian politicians and churchmen in attendance to understand. Difficult because to them because all capitalism seems to be of the cronyist variety in Italy. Why wouldn’t those in charge of corporations seek political protection from competition from upstarts? Why wouldn’t politicians offer such protection to the rich and powerful? Why shouldn’t foreign governments donate to a political family’s charitable foundation? Isn’t that simply the way the world works? This is Rome, after all: nihil sub sole novum.
Well, yes and no. As economists like Deaton have argued, billions of people have escaped poverty not by beggaring their neighbors but by having access to the global economy. Their governments, whether native or by adoption and imperfectly to be sure, started to protect their property, provide the rule of law, and allow them to produce, consume and invest more freely. This requires an understanding of limited but effective government and a thriving civil society, where voluntary associations provide the moral and civic formation that is necessary to produce good citizens and good human beings. Freedom is not as “natural” as it seems and requires much vigilance and restraint, especially at the political level.
This understanding is quite clearly missing in our current political discourse. Neither candidate in the US is capable of speaking convincingly about political and economic liberty, which means the US is becoming like the rest of the world, choosing between creeping authoritarianism and corrupt cronyism. Lovers of freedom and virtue will have to look elsewhere for continued inspiration.