Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Is Politics Violence?

In his excellent manifesto, The End is Near and it's Going to be Awesome, Kevin D. Williamson advances the idea that "politics is violence."  Here is how he describes his notion in Chapter 2.
Politics is violence. Perhaps that seems too strong for you?  If so, try the following experiment: Stop paying your taxes, or refuse to send your child to the local government school or a government-approved alternative, or build an addition onto the back of your home without approval from the local authorities, or have your child sell lemonade on the sidewalk without official blessing, or feed the poor in Philadelphia without government permission, and see how long it takes for the government to dispatch to your home a team of men with guns to enforce your compliance, seize your property, or put you in a cage.(p.38)
Why, even the Department of Education has guns.  "Kenneth Wright of Stockton, California, got a good close look at them when the Department of Education sent a tactical-entry squad to his home in the early hours of June 7, 2011."(p.41)  No doubt that arises because so many clauses in legislation involve the words "the Secretary shall enforce..."

Er, wasn't it the KGB that used to specialize in early morning visits?

Then Williamson invokes the shade of George Washington that "Government is not reason.  It is not eloquence.  Government is force".(p.43)  Only it seems the first president never said it.  But you get the point.

So let us ventilate a couple more Williamson quotes. "Politics is the art of obtaining and using the power of government."(p.44) Or this, after a discussion of justice, fairness, liberty, equality and the problem of anyone establishing the "superiority of [their] first principles to the satisfaction of the general public": "The politician is the man who has the power to make his preferences mandatory."(p.72)

But actually, the politician is the man who divides the voters into for or against.  His profession is to rally enough voters into voting for him and/or voting against the other guy.  Then, when he gets into office, he and his faction work to exploit divisions in the legislature to pass their program of coercion.

Therefore I argue that politics is not exactly violence, or the "art of applied violence."(p.44)  Politics is division.  The art of the politician is the art of assembling a majority -- of the voters, of the legislators -- on some program of government force.  And he does it by finding the seam of division, finding the sweet spot to divide people into us and them, that will assemble enough people to vote him into office or vote his program into force.  Some people are already for or against.  Some people can be persuaded.  Some people can be intimidated.  Some people can be bought.  We know that politics is division because politics is always a question of "issues."  An issue is a point of disagreement between people in the public square.

But whatever politics may be, Government is force.  Whatever George Washington may have said or not said, that is the fact.  But it is an inconvenient fact.  That is why governments expend so much effort into presenting themselves as sweetness and light and the friend of the little guy and the fount of compassion.  That is what NPR is for: broadcasting stories about nice compassionate government programs helping people.  Yet people are wondering these days why the government is purchasing so much ammunition.  The answer is that government is force and no government department thinks itself serious unless it has its own corps of enforcement officers.  Government is force.

We know that government is force by the way that politicians and activists go out into the world to seek support for their programs.  The issue is always force.  Back in the 1800s the issue was the oppression of the workers that could only be ameliorated by force.  In the 1900s it was the poverty of the workers that could only be improved by compulsory social insurance.  Now we have race, sex, gay marriage, and the remedy is force.

No doubt force is needed.  There will always be pirates and plunderers.  But the whole point of humans is that we are social animals.  The great achievement of the agricultural revolution was that it reduced homicidal death by a factor of ten from 500 deaths per 100,000 people per year to 50.  The great achievement of the industrial revolution is that it has reduced homicidal deaths by another order of magnitude down to five deaths per 100,0000 per year and better.

Yet the politicians call for force.  It's not that politics is violence, although it certainly encourages violent emotions and worse.  Politics is the art of dividing people on programs of force.

Or more simply: Government is force; politics is division.  And the intersection of politics and government is war.

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