Yes, I know---there are the descriptions (and often enough, self-congratulatory ones) of public "servants" doing well by others, patriotism, and personal sacrifice. We hear a lot of that, and more about it in a moment. For now, it is sufficient to say I am bothered by the fact that politicians of every persuasion possess a certain kind of personal grandiosity, a sense of self that is most likely entirely unjustified, a belief that they are specially endowed or entitled, with insight into truth and justice others lack, and with a destiny to fulfill some end-state conception that they hold to be true, and to which they’d bind the rest of us, left, right, or center.
Then there’s the matter of lying. Now, human beings lie, almost (I say almost not quite believing it; it’s really a weasel word) without exception. Sophisticated psychological studies show that people lie astonishingly often; granted, it's usually about unimportant things, but often enough on some important ones, too. But most human beings are not governing large numbers of other human beings, and therein lies the difference. In a democracy, in order to succeed, politicians must be untruthful at least some of the time, either by commission or omission, and if not in a blatant way, then in a vague, slippery way, and usually a bit of both––for in no other manner could they at once be elected and also appeal to different constituencies with different and, often enough, opposing interest. We are all liars, it’s just a fact and there’s no denying it without lying again. But as opposed to most of us, politicians lie as a part of their profession. In other words, one must be something of a scoundrel in order to succeed as a politician.
An honest ideologue would be no better, for an ideologue is by definition unyielding and doctrinaire, and he imagines his principles and ideological system to be paramount and above all other concerns, and the facts on the ground or the opinions of others are unlikely to alter his view. Indeed, facts that are contrary to the ideology are rejected or twisted to fit, for the ideology is indubitable. A very personally dishonest ideologue is even worse, of course. And there’s a good chance he will be, for, as I said, people lie, and in the case of the lying ideologue in power, lies can have big consequences to many others. Hitler, Mao, Lenin, and Stalin all come to mind. So that leaves us with dictatorship, an authoritarian regime, and that is obviously no better, honest or otherwise––indeed, history shows it is much worse. Since the time of Plato, intellectuals have yearned for a philosopher king, some might even have fancied themselves as well-equipped to be one. But there's not a philosopher I've known personally or read who I think would be a good king. Indeed, most would be terrible. Besides, there's no reason to believe they are any more honest than the rest of us, and there's plenty of evidence to show this is true based on a study of the personal ethical standards of philosophers. As a consequence of all of this, dishonesty is simply something we must accept if we are to have democracy, which, as Winston Churchill among others has averred, is the worst system except for all the rest.
Returning to an earlier point, no one perpetuates the idea of the virtue of public service and the personal sacrifices of politicians, and the sacrifices of their peers, even their deceased (most especially then!) opponents, more than politicians, themselves, which is more often than not little more than self-flattery and self-justification. It really sickens me when I hear many politicians praise one another for their public service, as though they encounter untoward dangers and great personal sacrifice by seeking power over the rest of us. Heroes among them are few and far in between. And their tiresome paeans to one another and lauding the public service and greatness of others (most notably during obsequies) are mostly just disguised justifications for their own predilections for meddlesome activity.
I do not mean to say that political achievement is not sometimes actuated by good intentions with desirable or even noble ends in mind. But I think there is usually much more behind it than noble motives, and that in at least equal measure there is a desire to fulfill personal needs, namely, personal success, even glory, and certainly to gain the satisfaction that comes from having power and control over others, not to mention their approbation. There is a certain kind of neediness that attends most political temperaments. A politician by his very nature is something of a narcissist, some more than others, of course---but all seem to have a fair dose of it. I don’t find such people worthy of great admiration, generally, though I make very few notable exceptions. For every Winston Churchill or Abe Lincoln, there are literally tens of thousands of Bill Clintons, Donald Trumps, and George W. Bushes in terms of personal characteristics. But this isn’t about the former two, a decided minority among politicians, even the best of them; rather, it’s about most in the political class.
As for patriotism, it is an emotion akin to supporting a favorite sports team. A perfectly human emotion, mind you, but one that is a vestige of the tribalism of our primordial past. It is not altogether dissimilar to what gang members feel about their gang. And the symbols of patriotism: flags, insignia, and statues and such, are akin to a gang’s or sports team’s colors. Love of country is essentially love of an abstraction, one that is more often than not idealized and not even based in reality, but in what we imagine, rather like many Norman Rockwell paintings. How many politicians say they love their country, but, at the same time, seem to hate their government, or at least whenever the opposition is in power ... and, except in the imagination of the libertarian or ;yearnings for the Old West, isn't government the very sine qua non or essence of country. Oh, they mean what their country stands for, they will say ... or its people. But the things it is alleged to stand for are the idealized laws that form the government and the arrangements of society. And at any given time they are likely to detest half or more of the people, anyway--people with whom they disagree for one reason or another. Patriotism is really a silly concept. More than that, it has proved to be dangerous. This is not to suggest that I am personally devoid of such feelings, but I do view them as primitive, and not especially worthy of rational men, feelings that ought to be subdued and controlled, not nourished. Moreover, such emotions, these tribal feelings that underlie patriotism, or in their more vigorous manifestations, nationalism and jingoism, are the source of considerable evil in the world, the cause of horrible wars and much suffering. With that said, I separate patriotism … the love of country and the (not uncommon) feelings of one’s country’s superiority or exceptional nature … from duty to country … or more specifically, it is distinct from duty to the society that has offered certain benefits and protections to one, and duty to one’s neighbors and family, or more broadly speaking, duty to one’s countrymen.
I have a rather Socratic view of this matter, which is to say that I obey the laws of my society and fulfill the duties assigned to me (within the limits of conscience and what I deem to be morally right), such as paying taxes, not committing crimes, obeying contract laws, and even defending it when it becomes necessary. Much as Socrates refused exile instead of death when found in violation of Athenian law by a "democratic" assembly of citizens … a society from which he said he gained much and had a duty to obey. I do see limits to this, but there’s merit to accepting the laws of the state in many instances. While I might not have explicitly signed-up for or accepted these duties, neither did I explicitly deny the benefits or opportunities bestowed upon me, many or even most of which I took for granted. Therefore, my acceptance of those duties is implied by my having also freely taken advantage of the rights and benefits bestowed upon me. Again, there are exceptions of conscientious objection, in which case, one suffers the consequences, as did Socrates, though I would not go so far as he did in suggesting one owes one's life.
Insofar as I subscribe to tolerance, not of everything, mind you, but of differences that obtain in society that do me or others no harm, and, therefore, of pluralism; believe that the material goods and assets fairly acquired by others belong to them to own and to dispose of as they wish, with few exceptions (such as causing individuals or society to suffer as a result of this possession or use, e.g., spewing toxins from my factory into the air, to give an easy example); accept the role of logic and science, which is to say, reason; believe in the rule of just law, and not the caprice of men (understanding that civil disobedience is sometimes defensible); hold that people ought to have the right to choose their leaders; believe that individuals have certain rights that supersede the rights of states or majorities; and eschew superstition and ignorance–––I suppose I might be characterized as a liberal or liberal minded. But I do not hew to any overarching system of beliefs from which all other social principles or practices are derived, the hallmark of the ideologue, that is, other than the most rudimentary kind of moral principles that can be derived from conjoining two very important concepts–––one, impartiality, and the other, rationality, the latter meant in the psychological sense, which is to say impartial rationality. One or the other concept is not sufficient, by itself, for they must be joined as separate, but vital concepts to arrive at a moral code that can be universal. It is irrational (in the psychological sense) for one to choose his own suffering (or death) for no other, greater reason (such as to avoid greater pain, such as surgery might require, or in order to protect a loved one), and if we act impartially, we in effect extend this basic, rational principle of avoiding suffering and death to others, and without regard to the benefits or disadvantages that inure to one’s own self or to others. This is a long way of saying that the guiding principle is to avoid causing unjustified suffering, and that all other just universal principles are derived therefrom. By universal, I mean principles that apply to everyone at all times when the essential facts of the matter or the same. No one could impartially reason that we ought to promote happiness, though, or some conception of the good … for there is no objective standard of reference for what that means, that is, one upon which all rational people would agree. Rational people do agree on suffering, however, and that it ought to be avoided. To not avoid it for an overriding reason is simply irrational. Conceptions of the good (or happiness) vary, however, and their is no objective reason to prefer one over the other. There is such a standard for suffering and death, and their avoidance is even a condition of rationality. To extend this to others is where impartiality comes into play, and I contend that it is the basis of a universal moral code, one from which all social practices ought to be analyzed, and one which takes into account logic and the facts.
As I said, a system of the good … that which we apprehend as the kind of good one ought to promote or act upon for society as a whole or for people individually … cannot be similarly universalized as a requirement (as with the avoidance of suffering) to apply to all in a way that all rational men would agree, for there are no objective standards of reference to validate what one person thinks is good versus another’s conception, and neither reason nor rationality require it. One need only examine various and opposing political and religious systems to see that people have varying conceptions of the good, and there is no where an objective standard by which to measure them. Nothing in reason suggests we should prefer one end over another. And there is nothing necessarily irrational about acting immorally. There is nothing irrational about, say, stealing or murdering another. It is the conjoint principle of impartial rationality that extends personal rationality to others.
Reason (I do not mean psychological rationality, here) deals with means quite well; but as David Hume said, it is silent about ends and desires. Political systems are often simply manifestations of desires, what we prefer, which reason can lead us to fulfill, but that are in and of themselves (the desires or ends) not the products of ratiocination. There are of course exceptions to rules that we might devise through impartial rationality, such as do not lie or kill. The justification to an exception comes from my willingness to universalize an exception, impartially, such that I, too, or one I love, could be the victim of it, or the beneficiary, given the same essential facts of the matter. That is the nature of impartiality. Thus, thereby, one might universalize the suffering attendant to war, to use an extreme example, in order to defend or save more lives or preserve the liberties of many. But this must be done without regard to who benefits or loses given the essential facts of the matter. This, impartial rationality, is the only political “system” that I hold to be true, and from which all political acts are to be judged … indeed, all social acts are to be judged by it. As a consequence, I am no rightist, leftist, or centrist. I am a rational objectivist.
There are things that bother me about self-described leftists. Foremost among them is their certainty about how others ought to live their lives. But also one of the principal traits of the left is the focus on motives or on good intentions, and the emphasis is on what lies behind an act, something in the mind or will that gives the act (or the intention to act) its moral meaning and merit. I reject this quasi-Kantian outlook, though I accept much else of what Kant says about morality, especially in relation to impartiality, which is the root and true merit of his categorical imperative. Morality is about what we do, not simply about what we feel or believe. Sentiment is worthless as it pertains to morality, that is, unless it is followed by the right act. Would that it were so easy to be moral as to believe a certain way! Religious people understandably confuse piety and belief with morality. In this leftists also share views found in various religious doctrines, and perhaps most notably those Christian doctrines that consider morality to be more about what we believe than about what we do. Motive or intent––belief, is given great credence among leftists and Christians, alike. And it is not uncommon for either to question the motives of all they oppose, and to praise the motives they support, notwithstanding the consequences of their acts.
And as with leftists of various stripes, many Christians believe there is something impure about wanting and acquiring things, or to make a profit or gain in the process of expending labor or by serendipity, or in investing one’s goods to acquire even more. The New Testament itself tells us that it is hard for the rich to enter Heaven. Of course, this is often overlooked, too. But to all leftists and many religious people, the profit motive is not a good motive. This very doctrine is also at the heart of much socialist doctrine. Profit is conceived as something that is not grounded in moral desert and it is therefore bad, and profit-taking is a zero-sum proposition, where someone gains and someone loses, and profits are unearned if un-associated with personal labor, for the leftists makes a fetish of labor and believes it mystically confers ownership. Thus, the oxen must own the ground he plows. Leftists often know very little of economics. And they engage in a kind of metaphysics that defies reason. They confuse poetics with both morality and economics. One of the most telling forms of evidence is their analysis of economic globalization, which has has more to do with pulling literally hundreds of millions out of abject poverty than any other phenomena, but which the left sees as morally bad because of what they view as the unseemly, corrupt motives lying behind it. Leaving that aside, leftists, like Christians, also put great emphasis on moral desert, or at least what they conceive it to be, and they are often completely confused about morality as a result.
So-called capitalists (I am not one–––I believe both capitalist acts and socialist acts can be justified, depending on the facts) are wrong to say capitalism and private property are justified because they are more efficient than state-ownership of economic goods or state-controlled pricing––even though an abundance of empirical evidence suggests it. That would be a utilitarian argument. However, efficiency is not a moral criterion in and of itself. Private property and its disposition, which is to say, how we use it, are justified on moral grounds, when it is property that is fairly acquired. To take it without justification is theft. And that is so because it is irrational to desire the expropriation of one's own fairly acquired possession, and therefore, impartial rationality would require us to extend this principle to others. With that said, note the emphasis on justification. There are exceptions, and sometimes it is moral to take another's property for reasons that we can universalize. Such as supporting the state that nurtures and protects us. Again, morality trumps efficiency. More precisely, moral effectiveness is not always efficient. Such exceptions must be carefully weighed. Quite aside from the moral constraint of not causing unjustified suffering, not everything that is efficient is also effective, that is, if the end we wish to promote (effectively) avoid or prevent suffering.
People on the political right ground much of their dogma on moral desert, which is to say that the advantages one has are actually deserved. They often ignore the effects of good fortune, e.g., being born in a particular place, having particular experiences, including a particular kind of upbringing, genetic advantages, and accidents of coming in contact with the right people at the right time. They ignore luck, in other words. And as a consequence, the things they acquire are thought to be all due to their special moral desert. The corollary to this is that the privations of others, or at least of many, are in some manner their own fault, which is to say, deserved––and often enough thought to be the result of slothfulness or shiftlessness, or even in some cases because god wills it to be that way. They ignore the advantages bestowed upon them as individuals that others did not have, and through no fault of their own. They assume those advantages are in some manner just the way things ought to be, that they are merited, much as the disadvantages of others also must be their just lot in life. Consequently, they are more loath to share their gains in a general sense through, for example, taxation, notwithstanding the fact that society and accidents of birth and experience have made possible much of what they have. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people on the right are less generous than people on the left. Indeed, studies show that conservatives are even more apt to give voluntarily to charitable causes (even when church tithing is excluded) than self-described liberals, who apparently believe charity is best handled by the government. They prefer forced giving.
People on both the right and left make a kind of fetish out of democracy, but neither really care much for it when it results in what they don’t like. Democracy is a very messy kind of business––and, let’s face it, people are often not very smart and they sometimes even operate against their own interests, or at least what others (including me) believe to be in their interest, and that’s part of the point. Who gets to decide this? And why should someone else be in charge of deciding my interests or, similarly, why should I be in charge of deciding another’s? I am not fond of stupid people banding together to tell me how to live.
On the other hand, there’s little evidence to suggest that smart people are that much better, and, plenty of evidence to suggest they can be dangerous when given unencumbered power. There is unfortunately no good alternative to democracy, certainly not authoritarianism on the one hand or anarchy on the other, though I’d take my chances with the latter over the former. Over time, democracy tends to work out––but the tyranny of the majority always remains problematic, and that is why a system of law, constitutional protection, is necessary in order to protect individual rights from the mob or from the opinion of the moment–––laws made by elected representatives who, though often enough are dishonest and self-serving, nonetheless might be a cut above average in intelligence or at least cleverness, and, therefore, are more capable through compromise at coming up something more sensible than what we’d get with a direct democracy.
Of course, leftists often prattle on about the needs and desires of "the people"–––holding this disembodied abstraction of "the people" and the promotion of the people’s welfare as their special and abiding interest. They make a fetish of the poor too, and yet, studies show they do little themselves out of their own pocket for the poor. They often concern themselves with what others do or don’t do, as opposed to their own lack of beneficence. The right is more inclined to personal bigheartedness, but more in the particular than in general. Perhaps it is at bottom quite utilitarian in the sense that good works are good tickets to Heaven, and the right tends to be more religious. Whatever the motivation, leftists are notoriously stingy with their own money, and prefer to leave charity others, namely the taxpayer and government. Of course, conservatives tend also to have more money, too, which is certainly a factor in giving more.
The reality is that much of what "the people" really desire is eschewed by the left: their superstitions, values, habits, and leftists have little more than contempt their unwashed ways–––ways the left always seeks to change to suit their conception of what "the people" ought to be, how they ought to behave, as opposed to what they really are, and the way they themselves prefer to behave. You see, the left is all about freedom insofar as what one does corresponds with what they want. Likewise, "the people," who the left only pretends to love, have disdain in equal measure for their would-be protectors. So the left comforts itself, deludes itself, really, with a belief that “the people” are being misled and are ignorant of the true facts, and if they only knew them, they’d come running to their cause. Of course, this is rubbish. The rabble simply enjoys, no–––prefers its "rabbling" ways, and even think the left consists of wild-eyed kooks. I am no fan of the ways of the unwashed masses. But I wish them no harm and believe they are no less deserving of a fair shake and help when it can be given, and I especially believe a civilized society must do what it can to prevent or alleviate suffering. I just admit I am not a devotee to some idiotic abstraction about “the people” or the totem of “the working man,” or in a special virtue of the poor. They are no more virtuous as a class than any other class of human being.
The right is both fascinated by and loves authority, despite its paeans to individual liberty. Liberty is the furthest thing from the typical rightists’ mind, especially as it pertains to the liberty of others. Liberty for themselves, perhaps, though the typical rightist is also enamored of structure. Rightists require strong father figures to tell others how to behave, to provide organization to social existence, and of course, to punish the wicked. They like order, regularity, predictability … and they generally deplore non-conformity. They also share with the left a special disdain for people with whom they disagree, and they are very often intolerant. People on the left, of course, imagine they are tolerant and liberal minded, but they are equally intolerant of differences, and they’d just as soon have people with whom they disagree ostracized or in a re-education camp, so don’t believe it.
The right in particular has a love of symbolism and abstractions such as flag and country, the latter being more idealized than anything, often enough some halcyon time from the past that never really was as they imagine. They love the idea of these things, and often more than they love their countrymen as they really are, and especially those with whom they disagree. They are especially apt to see punishment, retribution, as the proper solution to get others to obey and to obtain justice. It is perhaps not unexpected that they love strongmen as their leaders. It all fits with their father-figure state of mind. Of course, the left is every bit as susceptible to cults of personality. People on the right and left are not nearly as different as they’d like to believe. It is not surprising that many on the right, in particular, seek the ultimate father figure in their belief in a supreme being who orders the universe and who can tell them what to do, or as often as not, provide justification for what they do. People on the left often settle for some cosmic notion of justice … or natural law … and social forces that inexorably lead to the left’s idealized version of the just society.
Have I made some generalizations? Yes, of course I have! But what I’ve said is mostly true, I think, notwithstanding some of the exceptions. It is not an argument for the center or so-called moderation, either, lest someone mistake my point of view. Moderation is as much a fetish as the various shibboleths of the right and left … taking no positions, a tepid and sometimes even cowardly outlook, compromising when there should be no compromise, or even feeling the pulse of the mob before arriving at a position. Rather, I am arguing against silliness and pretense. Against ideology and the behavior of ideologues. I am not promoting cynicism, but I am promoting skepticism. I am arguing against systems from which principles flow, and instead supporting the proposition that principles should flow from logic and evidence, and then, before formulating a position, that one should take into account how the essential properties of the facts at hand bear on other, similar instances, and can such a position be willed impartially to apply to all without regard to how one might benefit. I am arguing for making exceptions based on universalizable prescriptions. I am arguing for what I call rational objectivism … and for healthy distrust about those who would arrange our lives through political activity. Such people are a necessary feature of a well-ordered and just society … and they will be there as long as there are more than a handful of people … but these people and their ideas must be put into proper perspective and viewed through a skeptical lens. END