Pursuing Change Through the Establishment of Discourse

by Derrick Bostrom


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By this time, any of us who cared about the mid-term elections in the first place are pretty good and sick of the whole thing and just want to forget about it and move on. Now is therefore the perfect time to rub my readers' noses in the fiasco that is our dreary, exhausting political "system."

You know, I pride myself in being a crank. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor energy to achieve the heights of public misanthropy I aspire to. And though I try to make up for my lack of talent though sheer force of smugness, I also make sure to sound the alert whenever I discover a voice rising out of the contentious mush that pleases my ear and tickles my fancy (such as James Howard Kunstler’s column, which I continue to follow every week).

During my election day web trolling last week, I  found a great essay by Jeff Snyder, "Voting: Suppressing Change Through the Pursuit of Power." Managing to be be both insightful and mind-numbingly wordy at the same time, Snyder decries the essential counter-productivity of the American electoral process, as well as the damage it inflicts upon the national discourse:

The essence of the vote is the acquisition of power over others, not, note well, the good faith determination of the relative worthiness of specific societal goals. If it were the latter, the vote would be structured as a vote on goals or programs, and the Congress and President could be a semi-permanent group of functionaries or administrators whose job was nothing more or less than to implement those goals in good faith. As the prevalence of negative campaigning illustrates, because the essence of the contest is to determine who will rule over others, the contest invariably turns on the character of the persons who will exercise this power.... The nature of the contest -- the pursuit of power over others -- by its nature creates polarization and opposition, and calls forth ugly emotions and underhanded tactics.

Though such circumlocution by itself offers ample pleasures, Mr. Snyder also makes a good point, albeit perhaps an obvious one. But he's just warming up. Snyder continues at considerable length:

It is sometimes averred that, whatever defects government by majority rule has, it has the merit of minimizing conflict by providing a means by which the majority can achieve or pursue its goals, without resorting to actual violence and bloodshed. This is wrong, however, because the system is founded on opinion and it costs next to nothing to have an opinion.... It is far too easy to hold beliefs that are little more than self-flattering opinions about oneself that one takes credit for holding.... Far from minimizing conflict, therefore, a system of majority rule founded on consensus multiples conflict and makes conflict more likely, for it is too easy for men to espouse beliefs and principles for which they, personally, will never experience serious consequence, and for which others -- some small minority -- will pay the price.

By establishing a system founded on the marshaling of opinion, people who believe that the best or most efficacious means of achieving their goals for the country is by securing victory for their party are shunted into perpetually busying themselves with building party and consensus, and to that extent cease doing actual work to achieve their goals. And this, from the perspective of the elites who benefit from the status quo, is the great stability and improvement inherent in democracy, in contrast to other forms of government: by offering the commoners the prospect of acquiring power, and a power founded on marshaling those who share similar views, people busy themselves primarily with the acquisition and maintenance of power and efforts to build "consensus," thereby effectively preserving and prolonging the status quo.

He goes on to cite Thoreau and Dickens before reaching his conclusion, that real change can come only from without the political process. For example, a truly meaningful action for someone against the war would not be to elect Democrats, but rather to work to create alternatives for people who "choose the military out of the necessity of their personal circumstances." Frankly, I couldn't agree more.

All of this is presented under the aegis of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, a purveyor of weighty tomes and long essays about various aspect of civil and fiscal policy. Unfortunately, I have almost as much time and energy for the in-depth study of cranks as I have for the becoming of one. So if the site has a secret agenda beneath their their ostensible libertarianism, I do apologize. They describe themselves thusly:

The Ludwig von Mises Institute is the research and educational center of classical liberalism, libertarian political theory, and the Austrian School of economics. Working in the intellectual tradition of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995), with a vast array of publications, programs, and fellowships, the Mises Institute, with offices in Auburn, Alabama, seeks a radical shift in the intellectual climate as the foundation for a renewal of the free and prosperous commonwealth....It is the mission of the Mises Institute to restore a high place for theory in economics and the social sciences, encourage a revival of critical historical research, and draw attention to neglected traditions in Western philosophy.

While I could never consider myself a believer in free-market economic policy, I can't help but admire the kind of free time the Institute and its founder Lew Rockwell must have on their hands. And as someone who also struggles with loquaciousness, I can offer a certain sympathy. For people of like enthusiasm, I recommend both sites. Readers secure enough in their own beliefs and confident enough to navigate the precarious waters of partisan discourse will find these essays very entertaining, for both their outsider vantage point and their wordiness.