Put not your trust in politicians

By Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
web posted November 1, 1999

In the last election season, the media gleefully reported that the socialist left was resurgent all over the world. The Socialists came to power in France, the Social Democrats took over in Germany, the Labor Party won a massive victory in Britain, and the Clintonites didn't do half bad in the U.S. The great right-populist revolt of the mid-1990s had fizzled, not only at home, but all over the world. The Third Way -- socialism without the ideological edge -- was the wave of the future. So they told us.

This season, however, matters are shaping up differently, and we are already seeing the first signs that the establishment is panicking. The People's Party of Switzerland, for example, which departs radically from the establishment's position on a wide range of issues, has made impressive gains in the recent elections. It won 44 seats in parliament, which means that it is second only to the Social Democrats, who lost three seats and now hold only 51.

The platform of the People's Party calls for dramatic tax cuts, less state intervention in the economy, greater freedom for the individual, curbs on illegal immigration, staying out of the European Union and the U.N., and an end to unjust tax-funded compensation for victims of wars in which Switzerland was neutral. The tone is set by the party's main benefactor Christoph Blocher, an astute businessman whose political theme is "Switzerland First." Observers attribute the success of his party to radical discontent with the status quo.

In Austria, Joerg Haidar's Freedom Party has also made electoral gains, coming in second in recent national elections. The platform is similar. This "Austria First" party advocates free enterprise, dramatic privatization, curbs in welfare spending, an end to subsidized immigration, deregulation, a new focus on encouraging entrepreneurship through tax reform, and staying out of the European Union. In fact, he has denounced the EU as "a super-centralized state, a bureaucratized Moloch without democratic legitimization," according to Justin Raimondo.

Don't send a check just yet. If the usual model applies, these parties and the men who speak on their behalf are nowhere as good as the people and movements they represent. Further, political parties and their candidates can sound great out of power, but then sell out once in power. Notice, for example, how great the Republicans sound when they are in the minority. Once in power, they quickly shift to the political mainstream to maintain that power, even as those out of power adopt a new revolutionary posture.

Keep this in mind when assessing the tremors on the American political landscape. We are told that we have to choose between Gore and Bush, or, if we are feeling mischievously radical, we can support Bradley. But in truth these guys represent various stripes of one party: the social democratic status quo. Their support is wide but only a centimeter deep, and none comes close to tapping into the political discontent that is much more potent than the media are willing to report.

Underneath it all, we are seeing spectacular momentum growing outside the political mainstream. Part of it consists in the sheer numbers of people who are too angry even to participate. This group makes up an unpredictable citizen bloc that the political elites find intimidating because the discontent is so deeply entrenched.

Within the political system, people like Buchanan, Trump, Beatty, and Ventura are outsiders struggling to find just the right platform to tap into this discontent, and to do so in a way that convinces people that they are sincere. For now, the preferred vehicle of these men is the Reform Party, but there are other parties working to break in, including the U.S. Taxpayers Party, the Libertarians, the Green Party, the Southern Party and a wide variety of other independent organizations.

Should freedom lovers applaud these efforts? Of course. Anything that bothers the cheerleaders of the present system is worthy of support. But because the U.S. political system is set up to favor two parties, it is highly unlikely any of them can win the presidency. That doesn't mean they can't exercise influence. Whoever gets the Reform Party nomination, for example, will have the two parties dancing to try to capture a voter bloc that could actually end up deciding the election.

Now the larger question: should we put our hopes for a freer society in one of these parties and one of these leaders? Does the future of freedom depend on one of them coming to power and changing the system from the top down? The answer is a resounding no. To understand why requires that we rethink the place of democratic politics in the process of social change.

In the Cold War era, when the future of civilization itself was said to rest on the choices made by the political class, we became accustomed to looking to political leaders for answers. Their importance to our lives was obvious: they had their fingers on the bomb, they carried around national-security secrets in their heads that could make or break us, and they made decisions every day that controlled our fate. Voting was seen as a solemn duty requiring intense philosophical and spiritual reflection.

These days, matters are different. The Clinton administration's lasting legacy has been to remove (inadvertently) the moral and ideological props that sustain the power and prestige of the central government. It is no longer possible to view the president as the "leader of the free world," in the old moniker, or to view the Supreme Court as a citadel of justice, or to see Congress as the people's house. Taxes consume 40 percent of our income and the supposed benefits we receive do not come close to compensating us. People are more inclined to see voting as a racket, and this fact is reflected in voter participation rates.

Young people no longer aspire to become civil servants or to enter the political class, but to be entrepreneurs, professionals, or pioneers in new technology. We see it in the decline of the courtier press and its systematic replacement by new, independent media. We see it in the rise of revisionist history that allows us to take another look at who the real heroes and villains of our century are. We see it in the low levels of public support for U.S. foreign military adventures.

If we look beneath the surface, we can see that the political consensus that has animated most of post-war political culture, and even the ideological assumptions that date back to the early years of our century, are being called into question. We've been told since then that an elite corps of social and economic managers is necessary to bring about social justice, economic efficiency, international order, equality, and a million other things. The common denominator in all these schemes has been a distrust of people's ability to manage their own affairs.

But that assumption only persuades where collectivist ideology controls the public mind, and huge dangers loom: war, depression, nuclear annihilation. In such times, people are inclined to think that problems can only be solved by the political elite. Progressivism and Bolshevism came to power in wartime, Fascism and National Socialism in economic crisis, the New Deal in depression, and the Fair Deal and Great Society under the threat of nuclear war.

In times of relative peace and prosperity, however, the reverse threatens: people begin to see the political elite as arrogant and overextended, and demand that their power be curbed, even overthrown. We live in such times. There is no longer a plausible reason why citizens should have to put up with gargantuan regimes that tax and regulate them to death. The myriad rationales for the total state -- and we hear them every day -- sound less and less convincing. As this process continues, the legitimacy of the regime will be increasingly undermined, and the political class will increasingly come to fear public retribution.

This brings us back to our original question: what is the role of the present political class in the unraveling of the state? Nowhere is it leading, morally or politically, the counterrevolution against the statist status quo. Far from it. It is behind the times. It can only attempt to discern the public mood and try to catch up.

At best, the political class operates as a reflection of, and not the molder and shaper of, present opinions about the nature of the state. At worst, the political class is made up of men who feel no compunction about betraying their well-intentioned benefactors to achieve power above all else. This is why it is always a danger, a snare and a delusion, to put our faith in princes, even when they are democratically elected. If freedom lovers come to understand this, they will become more realistic, and therefore hopeful, about the prospects for liberty in our time.

After the collapse of socialism in 1989, for example, many people thought big political changes were on the way. The worst idea of the millennium -- that the state ought to be society's preeminent institution and control our lives, property, families, and communities -- would be seen as an egregious error. It would be repudiated not only in former Soviet colonies but all across the West, where governments, inspired by the socialist example, had erected massive regulatory-welfare-warfare states.

It's a decade later, and the left-right coalition in favor of Leviathan is still firmly in control. Why? Because of the mistaken trust placed in politicians to manage the transition to freedom in the post-socialist age. Sure enough, many of the political leaders that emerged in the wake of socialism's collapse immediately began to act like the corrupt men they deposed. This was true not only in the Czech Republic and Russia; it also applied to the Republicans who rode a revolutionary wave into Congress.

This reality has been a source of despair for many. But, taking the long-run view, we are actually seeing signs of the beginning of the end of the consensus that sustains Leviathan. The shape of the counterrevolution is still foggy, and the politicians who reflect the underlying breakdown of civic consensus far from perfect. Most of them do not even fully understand their role in the continuing politico-historical drama. But that is not necessary. We do not need to trust them, and indeed should never trust those who lust after power.

What's important is not what they say or believe but what they represent: a growing international awareness, at the end of the century, that the nightmare of the total state must end. The sure means of restoring and securing our liberties is not having this or that politician in office but, as the founders said, in fostering a public sentiment that is implacably and radically opposed to any attempt by the power elite to take what is not theirs.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.




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