Jan 22, 2004 11:21 am


In one of my very first undergraduate political science courses at New York University, I studied with H. Mark Roelofs, who wrote Ideology and Myth in American Politics. I'll never forget the first class: I swear ... he sounded like a villain out of an Ayn Rand novel."There is no such thing as objectivity," he bellowed."This class will be devoted to my opinion. You can certainly try to interject your own opinions, but I won't be listening." I figured it would be downhill from that point on.

The truth is that he was listening to our opinions, and out of the course came some of the most spirited and challenging discussions in which I'd ever participated.

One of the most provocative aspects of Roelofs' 1976 classic book was his view that the American political system's resilience camouflaged congenital problems in the American political mind. While I rejected Roelofs' leftish criticisms of Lockean liberal ideology, I appreciated, from a libertarian perspective, his stress upon the fundamental frustration embedded in the Madisonian universe of checks-and-balances. For sure, Madison's vision had frustrated—thank goodness—the emergence of totalitarian political movements. But Madison wrote during a time when the scope of government was much more limited. Upon constitutional contradictions and war-making capacity, the government gradually gained more and more influence over every aspect of social life. Madison's" checks and balances" gradually morphed into an institutionalized civil war among competing interest groups, each vying for some special privilege at the expense of the others.

That's why Friedrich Hayek had argued: The Worst Always Get on Top. As the government has expanded the scope of its power, government power has become the only power worth having. The system encourages those who are most adept at using that power, and who, by such use, rise to the upper echelons of political institutions.

So, despite the"Lockean myth" that prioritizes individuals, the reality of the mixed economy reciprocally reinforces the reality of Madisonian checks and balances. Paradoxically, that reality encourages the emergence of both political collectivism and social atomism: It nourishes the development of ad hoc groups, because groups become the only political units that matter. Simultaneously, it atomizes a society, as people-in-groups become increasingly fragmented and fractured across every dimension, in search of this or that privilege or exemption: a Hobbesian"war of all against all"—which goes global.

Rand characterized it as an intensifying process of"global balkanization": the statist manufacturing of pressure groups, which pits"ethnic minorities against the majority, the young against the old, the old against the middle, women against men, welfare-recipient against the self-supporting," and so on and so on. Every differentiating human characteristic becomes the basis for another battle in the war for privilege: age, size, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, race, etc. Each of these groups attempts to use government to subsidize its ventures, socialize its risks, or otherwise restrict the access of its competitors.

It is a system that has evolved structurally, and it doesn't matter much who is elected to political office. It may matter to the specific interests who influence this or that politician—indeed, a persuasive case can be made that not every pressure group is equally represented and that this is the nature of a crony capitalism in which some cronies are more equal than others. But the elections don't affect the fundamental structure of political privilege as such.

That's why Roelofs saw the President as the"baron" of American myth-making. It's not that the President is without the ability to affect profoundly, through rhetoric and action, the body politic. It's that the war of all against all is so deeply woven into the tapestry of the American political system that the President is almost irrelevant. He may give voice to this or that special interest or speak of the" common good," he may go off on this or that foreign adventure, but he simply can't alter the nature of the system."Given the dispersed character of the political system generally," Roelofs writes,"no president can build up and extend his authority into objective patterns of sustained control." There are simply other forces at work, and in the long-run, who is elected matters little to the ways in which the system functions.

Of course, I remain a political junkie. I am routinely entertained—and sometimes nauseated—by politics. Among friends, I've been predicting that Howard Dean's foaming-at-the-mouth style would get him into major trouble, and that if he were the Democratic nominee, he'd probably go down to a McGovern-style defeat, which might even be perceived as a"defeat" for the antiwar movement that he allegedly endorses. Now, with Dean's meltdown, we may actually witness a race! Will Diane Sawyer save him tonight? Will nice guy John Edwards—that's Edwards with an"S" not Psychic Guy—finish last? Will John Kerry get a haircut? Will Bush's boots be made for walkin' ... all over these guys? Stay tuned! It's a thrilling soap opera!

But here's the bottom line: Why on earth does any of this matter? What does it matter who gets elected? What's the sense of it? Sure, you can register your protests by voting defensively, against this or that candidate. But until or unless this system is fundamentally transformed, it's almost immaterial who becomes President.

I don't believe this is cause for grief. I suppose we should count our blessings that we live in a society of dispersed oppression, given the totalitarian alternative, even if we've traveled a long way down the road to serfdom over the last hundred years.

But I reject the premise that the only choice we have is between dispersed and totalistic systems of oppression. The libertarian ideal is a revolutionary one, a grand challenge to all forms of oppression. It will require nothing less than a philosophical, cultural, intellectual, and political revolution to achieve.

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