Variations | Political intoxication

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PROBABLY the oldest and most enduring political notion in human history is the belief that problems created by humans can be solved by a group of humans if we would just give them power over the rest of us.

That this idea has been repeatedly refuted by the actual experiences of actual humans throughout the history of humanity is besides the point because not all of us have the patience or time to study history anyway. 

Some may point out some “success” stories (Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, Scandinavia), but a closer look at those countries will reveal the importance not of their form of government or the “quality” of their leaders, but of culture, especially one that emphasizes individual responsibility, hard work and the rule of law.

I’ve always been an admirer of all (good) things British, and I’ve always thought that Britain was Great because it had an efficient political system and great, if not larger than life, leaders. And then I finally learned why a country smaller than a lot of other great nations (and not so great ones like the P.I.) became a global powerhouse.

According to professors Deirdre McCloskey and Alberto Mingardi, “The Enrichment emerged in Britain first, [but] government spending there was until well into the 20th century focused on the defense of the realm, the protection of the sea routes to India, and servicing the debt contracted to defeat at last the French [in the Napoleonic wars]. As the economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, ‘any policy objective aimed deliberately at promoting long-run economic growth would be hard to document in Britain before and during the Industrial Revolution…. In Britain the public sector by and large eschewed any entrepreneurial activity.’ ” (See also economist Sam Ashworth-Hayes’s article, “Did Slavery Really Make Britain Rich?” in the latest issue of The Spectator.)

Government in Britain excelled when it wasn’t trying to “fix” the people.

But the itch to “fix” humans appears to be part of the human DNA, even in Great Britain. In the early 1880s, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer was already warning that when “each generation is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends by individual actions or private combinations, and more familiar with the attainment of them by governmental agencies…eventually, governmental agencies [will] come to be thought of as the only available agencies.”

The result is representative democracy as we now know it:

“Every candidate for Parliament is prompted to propose or support some new piece of ‘ad captandum’ [designed to attract or please the crowd] legislation,” Spencer wrote. “Nay, even the chiefs of parties — those anxious to retain office and those to wrest it from them — severally aim to get adherents by outbidding one another. Each seeks popularity by promising more than his opponent has promised….”

Meanwhile, Spencer added, “those who regard the recent course of legislation as disastrous, and see that its future course is likely to be still more disastrous, are being reduced to silence by the belief that it is useless to reason with people in a state of political intoxication.”

Spencer said “every additional State-interference strengthens the tacit assumption that it is the duty of the State to deal with all evils and secure all benefits…. The multiplication of careers opened by a developing bureaucracy, tempts members of the classes regulated by it to favour its extension, as adding to the chances of safe and respectable places for their relatives. The people at large, led to look on benefits received through public agencies as gratis benefits, have their hopes continually excited by the prospects of more. A spreading education, furthering the diffusion of pleasing errors rather than of stern truths, renders such hopes both stronger and more general.”


Fast forward to 1914, in New York, the greatest city of Britain’s former colony which would soon surpass the greatness of its “mother country.” Robert Moses, 25, a brilliant, highly educated reformist “fired by the boundless idealism of his youth,” had joined the city government to reform NYC’s civil service — a.k.a., the plunderhouse of politics, as his biographer Robert Caro would put it in his monumental biography of America’s most famous (or notorious) urban planner.

From the 1790s to the 1960s, Tammany Hall, the Democrats’ political machine, was the major player in NYC politics. The Tammany machine, Caro wrote, was greased with money and pulled by men. And the “most succulent of the carrots that lured these men forward…was the carrot of jobs, jobs for themselves, jobs for their wives, jobs for their sons. The only source of jobs on the scale required was the city itself. So the jobs Tammany had to control in order to control the city were the city’s jobs — positions as policemen, firemen, inspectors, secretaries, clerks. There were, in 1914, 50,000 city employees and this meant 50,000 men and women who owed their pay checks — and whose families owed the food and shelter those pay checks bought — not to merit but to the ward [precinct] boss. Patronage was the coinage of power in New York City…. In New York, in 1914, ‘merit’ was still votes deliverable. The ‘ability’ that determined who got the jobs and which jobholders got promotions and raises was still number of relatives — relatives of voting age — or rightness of connections.”

Caro said reforms of the civil service such as Moses was to propose “were therefore daggers thrust at the heart of Tammany Hall.” But “Tammany Hall understood this well. And Tammany knew how to defend itself. It always had.”

Tammany Hall officially ceased to exist in 1967. But there is still no fundamental difference between politics as practiced then and now. The means may have (somewhat) changed, but the end remains the same.

To quote Jim Geraghty, the world is (still) a mess. “Our problems are [still] complicated, multifaceted, interlocking, more tangled up than the Christmas lights in the attic.... Every solution requires trade-offs and will have unforeseen consequences. Consensus is difficult to build and delicate when it’s established; enacting a solution requires patience, determination, and willingness to adjust in face of setbacks, and bad faith actors are plentiful. As Kevin Williamson observed, ‘everything looks simple when you don’t know the first thing about it.’ ”

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