Thursday, April 26, 2012

What Is the Purpose of Politics?

Politics: what does it mean and why does it exist? (The word politics is singular.) Most of the definitions I found list politics as the art of governance, particularly of a state. While the word is certainly used this way, this seems to describe what politics does rather than what it is.

Finally I happened upon the Oxford Dictionaries #2 interpretation of the word, which reads, "activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization." This game of power takes place in all organizations, both governmental and private, both formal and informal. Particularly when it relates to government, politics aims to improve status by gaining and trading power over the lives of other people.

As for why we have politics in the first place, it is the natural way people act in organizations, from the smallest partnership to the largest government. Each of us belongs to and interacts with many organizations. Each individual in every organization works to leverage the organization's resources and activities to what he perceives to be his individual advantage at a given time.

This propensity to seek personal benefit applies to everyone, including those in leadership positions. This is true even if the individual is unaware of his self focus or claims to be altruistically sacrificing himself on behalf of others. Incidents of politicians gaining personal benefit while claiming to act on behalf of the people (or the children, or the environment, or whatever) are so common as to nearly define the word politician.

More dangerous than the disingenuous and manipulative is the politician that truly believes himself to be a great savior of some cause. This breed seems to naturally seek to coerce others to do 'right.' The worst devils are those that would force others to be angels.

Since politics is a natural human condition, calls for organizations to operate sans politics are superfluous—and often feigned. It is akin to demanding that humans live without breathing air. Politics will remain a constant as long as we live in this world.

This need not be all bad. Note that I previously asserted that each seeks his own advantage. Advantage is so individualized to personality, opportunity, time, and a host of other factors as to offer a certain level of uniqueness. This uniqueness allows organizations to frequently offer win-win situations to multiple individuals. It is not always necessary for someone to lose for someone else to gain.

We engage in many mutually beneficial activities daily. You exchange some of your money to purchase a product at a store. Both you and the retailer feel better off for having made the trade. I spend time teaching a merit badge to local scouts. They gain advantage by learning and achieving. I gain advantage through personal fulfillment and by making my neighborhood a nicer place.

Often the word politics, however, refers to those situations where someone must lose for someone else to win. We chafe at the resulting friction and discord. (This domain, incidentally, is where the media earns its wages. This understanding ought to inform our view of media activities and reporting.)

While advantage is fairly unique, it can often be similar enough for individuals to band together in hopes of gaining greater benefits as a group. One of the most obvious examples of this is the political party. Other examples include buyers' clubs, civic organizations, activist groups, student clubs, corporations, religious organizations, etc.

But not all of these things are equal. In general, the politicking in and among private organizations is limited by market forces, due to competition. We can and often do take our business elsewhere. With government being a monopoly, politics in the government realm has no similar force to tame it. This means that governmental politics requires special handling.

To explore this topic, it may be beneficial to ask why we frequently return the same politicians to governmental positions when they have so clearly acted the part of the politician? The answer is that the constituents perceive that they gain some advantage, or at least lose less advantage if they return the cunning pol to office than if they don't.

When it comes to selecting governmental political officers, we often despair at the poor selection available. In truth, political races rarely offer a white hat vs. black hat scenario. (Those that think otherwise are deluded—perhaps willingly so.) We are usually offered only choices that vary by a few degrees, much like the selection of soap at the store. The choice more often comes down to taste than to substance.

The fact is that our politicians will continue to act in their personal interest, regardless of what drivel they spew to make us think otherwise. Happy are we when what a politician does happens to work to our advantage. Teeth gnashing ensues when it goes the other way.

What really matters are the incentives in the system in which our politicians operate, as politicians will always respond to those incentives. The design of the system is far more important than the party or the identity of a given politician.

I have voted regularly since age 18. But if I objectively review my voting record, I can honestly say that there is no chance that my failure to vote would have altered the outcome of any but two of the many elections in which I have voted. The exceptions involve local municipal seats that were won by fewer than 100 votes. And even in those cases, it is likely that actual outcomes (i.e. how government behaved) would have been little different had the other candidate won.

It is possible for a rational person to conclude from this that voting is an irrational pursuit. However, most people rarely have an opportunity to make a major difference except on the most local scale: in his family and among those with whom he personally interfaces.

Likewise, politicians can usually only marginally affect the design of the political system. But marginal change, over time, amounts to significant change. So it is still important to promote and select candidates that are likely to marginally improve the system (according to our viewpoint). We should seek to remove those that have a track record of marginally damaging the system from office.

Our nation's Founders understood that politics could be a nasty force. But they also understood that it was unavoidable. So they tried to design a system that pitted ambition against ambition to limit the worst aspects of politics. Governmental politics is a powerful force. So powerful, in fact, that it must be restrained with the strongest chains to prevent it from devouring the liberty it is supposed to protect.

Over the past century and a half we have systematically removed many of the checks on government that our Founders designed; thereby, allowing the ambition of governmental politicians to increasingly influence our personal lives. The fetters are increasingly transferred from the politicians to the citizens. This is always done with many virtuous sounding words and arguments.

Citizens become so comfortable with the fodder offered by their prison guards that they tolerate the chains and even argue against their removal. Politicians are extremely adept at appealing to this type of dependency, which is perhaps the most addictive force on the face of the earth; maybe even more addictive than power.

Politicians will never vote to restrain themselves. Not really. Sometimes they undertake Potemkin votes that are "hollow facades" of self-restraint. Proper restraint of government comes only from the united will of the governed. Our legal documents, however well written and regarded, and our judiciary, however wise, will never protect us from our own weak will.

In other words, liberty can only be maintained through individual virtue—a love of liberty that is so strong as to engender abhorrence for dependence—that is so widespread as to become a cultural feature. Are there enough of the willingly virtuous among us to sustain a culture of liberty? If not, how long can liberty possibly last?

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