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Excerpt: ‘Don’t Vote It Just Encourages the Bastards,’ By P.J. O’Rourke
O’Rourke Looks at Why Politics Is a Necessary Evil, But Just Barely Necessary
Oct. 22, 2010
In P.J. O’Rourke’s new book, “Don’t Vote — It Just Encourages the Bastards, ” the satirist takes a look at national politics through the venerable lens of a teenage party game to find an unsettling, and humorous, side of the political machine.
Read an excerpt of the book below, and head to the “GMA” Library for more good reads.
Politics Makes Us Free, And We’re Worth It
When I first began to think about politics — when mastodons and Nixon roamed the earth — I was obsessed with freedom. I had a messy idea of freedom at the time, but I had the tidy idea that freedom was the central issue of politics.
I loved politics. Many young people do — kids can spot a means of gain without merit. (This may be the reason professional politicians retain a certain youthful zest; Strom Thurmond was the boyo right down to his last senile moment.) I was wrong about the lovable nature of politics, and even at twenty-three I probably suspected I was wrong. But I was sure I was right about the preeminent place of freedom in a political system.
Freedom is a personal ideal. Because politics is an arrangement among persons, we can plausibly assume that freedom is a political ideal. Our favorite political idealists think so. They’ve been unanimous on the subject since Jean-Jacques Rousseau convinced polite society that human bondage was in bad taste and John Locke showed the divine right of kings to be a royal pain.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence declared us to be residents of “Free and Independent States.” John Adams demanded, “Let me have a country, and that a free country.” Tom Paine warned that “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe.” And he exhorted us to “receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” Calling America an asylum may have been a poor choice of words, or not. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, preached “Freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person.” Jefferson was quite free with the person of Sally Hemings. And a dinner toast from Revolutionary War general John Stark bestowed upon New Hampshire a license plate motto that must puzzle advocates of highway safety: “Live Free or Die.”
With Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations as a useful gauge of what we think we think, we find that Emerson poetized, “For what avail the plow or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail?” Hegel weighed in, “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” As unlikely a character as the crackpot Nietzsche had something to say: “Liberal institutions straightway cease from being liberal the moment they are soundly established: once this is attained no more grievous and more thorough enemies of freedom exist than liberal institutions.” The UN Commission on Human Rights comes to mind.
We can survey the arts, where mankind is most blatant in its truths, and find artists taking the broadest liberties. (They are especially free with the use of fate as a plot device.) We can peruse philosophy, where mankind is less truthful, and not hear freedom denied by anything except free thinking. Theology makes sporadic arguments against free will, with which the devout are freely willing to concur. Science is deterministic and its special needs stepsister social science is more so. But people are free to pick and choose among the determinations of science until they find something they like. I give you Al Gore and you can have him. Perhaps there are scientists who make a sound case for the inevitabilities of biology and such. But we don’t know what these geniuses are talking about and very likely neither do they. For example, the important biologist Richard Dawkins has written a book, The God Delusion, in which he uses predestinarian atheism to argue that Richard Dawkins is the closest thing to a superior being in the known universe.
The theoretical (as opposed to practical) enemies of freedom are feeble opponents. And we are all but overrun by theoretical allies in freedom’s cause. We’ve got collaborators in the fight for freedom that we don’t even want. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains” is the penultimate sentence of the Communist Manifesto. And a creepy echo of it can be heard in the refrain of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Mao announced, “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy …” Half a million people died in those ellipses.
If we were to give out the proverbial “a word to the wise,” the sagacity-testing utterance with which to provide the sages would be “freedom.” In the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary the noun has fifteen definitions and the adjective “free” has thirty-six. These definitions, along with their usage citations, occupy 189¼ column inches of small and smaller type.
Peter Roget (1779-1869), of Roget’s Thesaurus, was a physician, a scientist, the secretary of the Royal Society for more than twenty years, and an exhaustingly systematic thinker. He designed his thesaurus (Greek for “treasury”) as a reverse dictionary. Instead of listing words and giving their meanings, he listed meanings and gave words for them. Under the heading “freedom” there are more than four hundred entries in twenty-one categories. And “freedom” is only one of the twenty-three headings in Roget’s “Section I, General Intersocial Volition” of “Division II, Intersocial Volition” of “Class Five, Volition.” It’s hard to know whether or not to be thankful that Peter Roget’s obsessive-compulsive disorder meds hadn’t been invented.
Among the various types and kinds of general intersocial volition, about ten have something to do with political freedom.
freedom in the abstract
Several of these may seem beside the point. But “frank,” for instance, is from the Old French franc, meaning free. We can be frank with the president of the United States. We can honestly and openly say what we think to him. And what we think of him. But in all our name-calling the name we call our president that sticks is “Mr.” He’s not “Your Excellency” or “Your Highness,” nor do we kowtow, genuflect, or curtsy to him. Callisthenes, the great-nephew of Aristotle, plotted to kill Alexander the Great rather than prostrate himself in the Persian manner to the conqueror of the known world. It’s probably just as well that our current president forgoes even a handshake with Fox News.
Then there are the freedoms of leisure, laxity, and wild abandon. Anyone who thinks these have nothing to do with democracy hasn’t met the demos. Also, it was not so long ago, during the great political demonstrations of the 1960s, that I was risking my neck — well, risking a conk on the head and a snootful of tear gas — in the battle to create a utopian society where I could lie around all day, utterly heedless and high as a kite.
Freedom, of course, may be considered as an abstraction. I was young enough to be highly abstracted — not to say stoned — when I began to think about freedom. But I wasn’t old enough to think. Therefore I can tell you nothing about my abstract thinking on the subject. And so can’t a lot of other people, because there are languages in which the word “freedom” doesn’t exist. (Not surprising if you think about some of the places languages are spoken.) Richard Pipes, emeritus professor of Russian history at Harvard, who is fluent in a number of tongues himself, makes this point in his book Property and Freedom (a perspicacious analysis of what the title says).
Professor Pipes cites the work of M. I. Finley, preeminent historian of classical antiquity (and, incidentally, a Marxist, something Richard Pipes is the opposite of ). Finley wrote, “It is impossible to translate the word ‘freedom,’ eleutheris in Greek, libertas in Latin, or ‘free man,’ into any ancient Near Eastern language, including Hebrew, or into any Far Eastern language either, for that matter.” Indeed, when the Japanese first encountered Western notions they were hard put to translate “freedom” and ended up using the word jiyu, which means something like “getting jiggy with it.”
Freedom and liberty themselves don’t have quite the same meaning. “Free” is derived from the Indo-European root pri, to love. The p becomes f in Germanic languages, thus fri in Old German and freo in Old English. The original sense of the adjective was “dear,” and it was used to describe those members of a household who had a kinship relation to the master of the house. Since at least the reign of King Alfred the Great, ruled 871-899, the primary definition of “free” has been “not in bondage.” You’re free because … Who loves ya, Baby?
Liberty is probably the better word;(1) its source is in the Indo-European leudh, “to mount up, grow.” Hence Latin for children, liberi, and German for populace, Leute. We the people make leudh into eleutheris and libertas.
Yet, the first definition of “liberty” in English is, once again, “exemption or release from bondage.” Whatever we mean by our abstract statements about freedom and liberty, the most meaningful thing we’re stating is that mankind has a sickening history of slavery.
Enfranchisement is the lively, fortunate, and honorable freedom, for the sake of which our political ancestors pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Nothing concerning the goal of enfranchisement is ignoble except its attainment. Among those who choose the congressmen, senators, and presidents of the United States we now include people who are not considered mature and responsible enough to have a beer. (If it’s any comfort, we should remind ourselves of the purpose of voting. We don’t vote to elect great persons to office. They’re not that great. We vote to throw the bastards out.)
Toleration is the best comfort of a free life for most people most of the time, especially if they experience as well as practice it. But tolerance is of minor interest to politics. Politics aspires to a big, positive role in things. And the role of politics in toleration is small except in the usually negative actions of keeping the peace. Yet it was two consummate American politicians who supplied us with a model for the universal formulation of tolerance: “Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself.” These may be rightly called the Bill and Hillary Clinton Rules. Hillary, mind your own business. Bill, keep your hands to yourself.
The ontological freedom known as autonomy isn’t part of practical politics, it’s all of practical politics — imposing my will and thwarting yours. If the actions of mankind and the events of history turn out to have been foreordained it will be a good joke on politics. This leaves us with the nub or butt end of politicking: privilege and opportunity. Ignore everything politicians say about opportunity. They’re lying. When politicians tout “opportunity” either they are trying to help voters disguise an extortion as a gift or they are the groom of government complimenting the bride of private property while in bed with the socialist maid of honor. And ignore all of politicians’ sniffing at and scorn for privilege. Privilege and opportunity are the names for rights — opportunity being rights you’d like to get and privilege being rights you’d like someone else to surrender. A politician doesn’t ask if he may have the privilege of a dance; he says he has a right to it.
* * *
Our gassing about our rights is almost equal to our gassing about our freedoms when we’re bent over and puffed full of air concerning our form of government. We’re inordinately proud of the Bill of Rights. But it’s an odd document.
The First and Sixth Amendments are straightforward enough, reassuring us that we may pray (OMG!), Twitter, kvetch, and be tried in the same court as O. J. Simpson. And the Fifth Amendment says that when we screw up big time we don’t have to give our version — like anybody’s going to believe us. But the Second Amendment is woefully confusing. (Not that it confuses me about gun ownership, in case you were considering a mugging to get my Jitterbug mobile phone.) The principal right that the Second Amendment seems to guarantee is the right to be a soldier. To judge by our various episodes of national conscription — Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam — this is a right we sometimes have to force people to enjoy.
According to the Third Amendment the Pentagon can’t just randomly send the U.S. Marines to sleep on our fold-out couch. This is something that, as a home owner, you’d think would be obvious. Although, in fairness, there are people elsewhere who wish they had an amendment keeping the Marines out of their house.
The Third Amendment and the Seventh Amendment (concerning jury appeals), are undercut by weasel words: “but in a manner to be prescribed by law” and “otherwise … than according to the rules of the common law.” The Fourth Amendment (mandating warrants) and the Eighth Amendment (limiting punishments) include strange pairs of modifiers — “unreasonable” and “probable,” “cruel” and “unusual” — better suited to a drunken description of my first marriage than to a sober writ of law.
And the message of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments is: You have other rights but you have to guess what they are.
There was opposition to the Bill of Rights. The modern mind expects it to have come from slave owners. But this is too modern. Support for the first ten amendments had little to do with dictionary definitions of freedom and liberty and a great deal to do with qualms that old-line Revolutionary patriots — including Sam Adams — had about the new federal government. Alexander Hamilton, who had other qualms, made a case against the Bill of Rights in that supposed ur-text of American freedoms The Federalist Papers, in number 84.
Hamilton put forth various arguments opposing the addition of any bill of rights to the U.S. Constitution. Some of the arguments were weak. Hamilton claimed that the Constitution, as it was, affirmed and maintained the ancient protections of individual liberty embodied in British common law. Maybe. But a less dangerous and expensive way to retain British common law had been available in 1776.
Hamilton claimed that previous, precedent-setting bills of rights, starting with the Magna Carta, were merely bargains between a sovereign and his subjects about a ruler’s prerogatives. Hamilton felt that no such sharp dealing and unseemly horse trading was necessary in a social contract freely made among equals. But if Nietzsche was right about what liberal institutions do once they’re institutionalized — and there’s no evidence he wasn’t — then Hamilton was wrong. And Hamilton believed the Constitution already included the most important safeguards of freedom: establishment of habeas corpus, prohibition of ex post facto laws, and a ban on titles of nobility. Hamilton was listing the principal instruments in the tyranny tool chest of his era. He didn’t foresee the future inventions of oppression such as ethnic cleansing, even though ethnic cleansing of North America was well under way at the time the Federalist essays were written.
But Hamilton’s other objections to the Bill of Rights were prescient. Don’t give the government ideas, he warned.
Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretense for claiming that power. They might urge … the provision against restraining the liberty of the press afforded a clear implication that a power to prescribe proper regulations concerning it was intended to be vested in the national government.
And now we have not only the FCC’s naughty involvement in Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction but also the gross obscenities of binding and gagging displayed in America’s campaign finance legislation.(2)
Hamilton said that, in the matter of denying a right, “Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?” Not even God, if you note the various evasions practiced by believers since Genesis. Hamilton said the true security of our freedom “must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.” Each of these can be rotten, and occasionally all of them are. Such an occasion arose just seven years after the Bill of Rights was ratified. The Sedition Act made it a federal crime to publish anything about Congress or the president that would bring them into “contempt or disrepute.” In other words, the Sedition Act made it a federal crime to publish anything about Congress or the president.
Fortunately the Bill of Rights is flawed in its treatment of only one type of rights — opportunities. It doesn’t meddle with the other type — privileges. Perhaps these two categories of rights should be known as “get-outa-here” rights and “gimme” rights or, as they’re more usually called in political theory, negative rights and positive rights. The Bill of Rights (and “the idea of Freedom”) is concerned mostly with our liberty to say, “I’ve got God, guns, and a big damn mouth, and if the jury finds me guilty, the judge will pay my bail!” This is a negative right — our right to be left alone, our freedom from interference, usually from government, but also from our fellow citizens when they want us to sober up, quit yelling, put the shotgun down, and go back into the house.
Politicians, in their hearts, are always tepid supporters of get-outa-here rights. For one thing, any and all legislators are being invited to leave. For another thing, strict adherence to negative rights would leave little scope for legislating, something legislators dearly love to do. Gimme rights are more politically alluring. This is how we find ourselves tempted with positive rights to education, housing, health care, a living wage, food relief, high-speed Internet access, and all the kingdoms of the world, and all the glory of them.
Politicians show no signs of even knowing the difference between negative and positive rights. Blinded by the dazzle of anything that makes them popular, they honestly may not be able to tell. But there’s evidence that a confusion of negative and positive rights originally was presented to the public with malice aforethought. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” appear to be, at first glance, as natural, well matched, and tidy of composition as the Norman Rockwell illustrations for them.
1. 1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. 2. Freedom of religion
3. 3. Freedom from want
4. 4. Freedom from fear
But notice how the beggar, number 3, has been slipped in among the more respectable members of the Freedom family. “Want what?” we ask ourselves.
Saying, as Roosevelt did in his January 6, 1941, State of the Union address, that “We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms” and that one of these freedoms is “freedom from want” was not an expression of generosity. Declarations of positive rights never are. There were six million Jews in Europe who wanted nothing but a safe place to go.
Politicians are careless about promising positive rights and cynical about delivering them. Positive rights themselves, in turn, are absurdly expandable.The government gives me a right to get married. This shows I have a right to a good marriage, otherwise why bother giving it to me? My marriage is made a lot better by my children’s right to day care, so the brats aren’t in my face all day being deprived of their right to a nurturing developmental environment. Every child has the right to a happy childhood, so I have the right to happy children. Richer children are happier. Give me some of Angelina Jolie’s.
The expense of all this makes politicians glad. They get to do the spending. Even negative rights aren’t free. They entail a military, a constabulary, a judiciary, and a considerable expenditure of patience by our neighbors. But positive rights require no end of money, and money is the least of their cost. Every positive right means the transfer of goods and services from one group of citizens to another. The first group of citizens loses those goods and services, but all citizens lose the power that must be given to a political authority to enforce the transfer. Perhaps such transfers could be made voluntary. U.S. federal personal income tax receipts in 2008: $1,426,000,000,000.
U.S. charitable contributions in 2008: $307,700,000. Perhaps not.
When rights consist of special privileges and material benefits, rights kill freedom. Wrong rights are the source of political power. It’s not freedom but power that is the central issue in politics. Only an idiot wouldn’t have seen that. And I was one.
At least I wasn’t alone. In the latter two-thirds of the twentieth century, most of us who involved ourselves in democratic politics claimed that freedom was what we were up to. We claimed it for more than fifty years, from the time of our defeat in the Spanish civil war until the embarrassing moment when those authoritarians Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led us to victory in the cold war. Liberals, moderates, and even some conservatives considered the sweeping positive rights created by a half century of social welfare programs to be extensions of freedom, in the opportunity sense. People were being given the opportunity to, you know, not starve to death and stuff.
This wasn’t an evil way of looking at things. And not all the programs were bad. But the electorate, the candidates, and we busybody pundits failed to properly scrutinize social welfare programs. It’s not that we failed to examine whether the programs were needed or superfluous or well or poorly run. What we failed to look at was the enormous power being taken from persons and given to politics. We insisted on seeing politics through the lens of freedom, as if social legislation were a Polaroid print of quickly developing liberties. We listened only to the freedom track on the electoral stereo. We predicted the future of politics with a horoscope containing just the astrological sign Libra.
We weren’t exactly wrong. Living in the midst of the civil rights struggle, during a cold war with one totalitarian ideology after a real war with another, we understood the value of freedom and the ugly alternative to democracy. But we didn’t — or didn’t want to — understand power. This was particularly true of my age cohort, the baby boom, and particularly evident in the way we reacted when politicians attempted to use their power to limit our freedom by conscripting us into a war in Vietnam. We challenged the establishment by growing our hair long and dressing like Bozo.
We’re a pathetic bunch. And it didn’t start with the Beatles, marijuana, and the pill. Recall the coonskin cap. I wore mine to school. Children of previous eras may have worn coonskin caps but they had to eat the raccoons first.