(An edited version of this piece was published this week at The Washington Times.)
Now more than ever we want to be inspired by our politicians. The economy, not just in the United States, but worldwide, is in dire straits. The threat of Islamic Jihad, made real to us on September 11, 2001, and always waiting in the wings since, seems to be growing now, as Islamic political organizations take advantage of the post-Arab-Spring power vacuum. It may become even more serious when the Islamic Republic of Iran or Saudi Arabia – both leading state sponsors of terrorism – obtain nuclear weapons. Rapidly escalating debt, over-extended entitlement programs, immigration, and health care all present domestic problems that require intelligent, principled solutions.
But for as long as I can remember, our politicians have disappointed us. Unfortunately, this is true of the 2012 field as well. Of course President Obama had to disappoint everyone, given the egalitarian nature of his goals and the lack of capitalistic wealth to raid – his predecessors succeeded in destroying so much wealth and human initiative, there was almost nothing left to loot. But one has a hard time maintaining that Obama has practiced integrity with respect to even his stated goals. He has indulged in lavish, frequent vacations and campaign trips using taxpayer dollars, played numerous rounds of golf, and on numerous occasions has bent laws and rules that don’t suit him (e.g., his recent “recess” appointments).
On the GOP side, our current politicians are equally disappointing. Look at the “final four”: A candidate who, on issues of immigration and foreign policy, tells it like it is, as no other candidate does, but who seems to be a wild card otherwise and, in particular, doesn’t seem like he will significantly reduce the size and scope of government, rather than use it as a laboratory for trying out some of his interesting ideas; a candidate who, as governor, enacted what is essentially Obamacare at the state level, whose promise to repeal is accompanied with a promise to “replace” it with something almost as bad, and whose other policies allow for similar levels of government intervention in our lives; a third candidate who wants government to intervene on behalf of manufacturing and “families,” whose only true “conservative” credentials are with respect to social issues, which will (properly) alienate voters and would, if he were elected, distract him from the problems that really need fixing; and a fourth who promises to make the sorely needed drastic cuts in the size and scope of government, but who is inconsistent when it comes to the protection of individual rights and who advocates a “non-interventionist” foreign policy that, especially today, would be dangerous.
Why is it that this is all we have been able to produce? Has the energy and message of the Tea Party, in particular, gone completely unheeded? Why does it seem so difficult to find an “electable” politician who truly wants to reduce the size and scope of government?
I think part of the answer lies in big government itself. Wrote Bastiat, of government that has gone beyond its proper function of protecting individual rights:
[A]s long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true mission, that it may violate property instead of securing it, everybody will be wanting to manufacture law, either to defend himself against plunder, or to organise it for his own profit. The political question will always be prejudicial, predominant, and absorbing; in a word, there will be fighting around the door of the Legislative Palace. The struggle will be no less furious within it.
In other words, the existence of government that engages in legalized plunder, which ours has done for decades, will attract those who are suited for this sort of politics (or, if they aren’t already suited for it, it will make them so). Moreover, the electorate – including even most members of the Tea Party – seem to support candidates who promise to preserve their favorite entitlement programs. Americans have chosen, as Bastiat might have said, to partake in the plunder.
Bastiat attributed the willingness to engage in legalized plunder to either “egotism” or “false philanthropy.” By “egotism,” Bastiat meant a sort of self-interest, but he seemed to believe that men acted automatically to pursue their interests and, moreover, that they would reasonably see it as being in their interest to take the fruits of others’ labor. Following Ayn Rand, I believe both of these are incorrect, and place the blame, rather, on what Bastiat called “false philanthropy” or what Rand, more precisely, calls “altruism.” Wrote Rand, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.” It is false philanthropy, because it has nothing to do with charity or benevolence. It means that one must literally put others before himself. It is the only moral idea that can justify the welfare state, and it is also the principle that causes a GOP candidate, like Mitt Romney, to defend “profit” by pointing out that the profits will go to charities and pension funds. The altruist philosophy that made big government what it is today is still the primary morality held by politicians, the media establishment, the party elite, and much of the electorate.
This is why Rand and others have said, “it’s earlier than you think.” Until a substantial portion of the population explicitly rejects altruism, we can’t hope for a consistent defender of individual rights to be “electable.” And until such a person is elected, we can’t hope to limit government to performing only its proper functions. And because big government itself perpetuates belief in altruism, what we’re in for is likely a slow, gradual process. Our next Republican might be a little better than George W. Bush, and this will allow the culture to move away from the ethics of altruism a little bit, which will allow a slightly better politician to be “electable” the next time around, and so on. Our only hope to short-circuit this process, and to see significant change in politics during our lifetimes is, perhaps, for qualified (scandal-free) non-politicians to jump into politics, and to take full advantage of the rapid spread of ideas over social media and the Internet generally. Like the Founding Fathers, they should be, as Rand described, “thinkers who [are] also men of action.” I know such men exist; if only one were running for president.