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 The Insolubility of Politics 

October 4, 2005 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, January 15, 1998]
The late Henry Hazlitt, a disciple of the great Ludwig von Mises, was a classical liberal (or libertarian, as we’d now say) and an incisive critic of the modern centralized state. His little classic, Economics in One Lesson, is a model of Today's column is "The Insolubility of Politics" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.showing the simple principles at the heart of complex issues.

Hazlitt died at age 99 in 1993. But he has reappeared in a new book, left unfinished at his death. Edited by Felix R. Livingston and published by the Foundation for Economic Education, it’s titled Is Politics Insoluble? Hazlitt’s answer to that question is pessimistic: Yes.

Why? Because of the very nature of politics. In a democracy, where all sorts of groups demand legislation favoring themselves, laws are easy to pass and nearly impossible to repeal.

“Since its beginning,” Hazlitt observes, “Congress has enacted more than 40,000 laws. It is a fair assumption that most of these are still operative in some form.” He cites a 1968 study by a congressional staff that concluded that “no one, anywhere, knows exactly how many federal programs there are.”

The rate of legislation and spending is always accelerating to meet the demand for special favors. Hazlitt quotes Frédéric Bastiat’s dictum: “The State is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else.”

The logic of the situation dooms us to constantly encroaching tyranny, not Stalin-style, but (I paraphrase Hazlitt loosely here) pain-in-the-butt style. The piling up of petty laws and regulations is bound to continue indefinitely, gradually choking off freedom of action — and eventually even freedom of speech and thought.

Hazlitt’s love of principle and distilled expression show both in what he says and in what he quotes. Many of his best citations concern the perversion of democracy into a system of what Bastiat called “organized plunder,” and of perverting voting into larceny by other means; while the good citizen who dutifully obeys the law and pays his taxes, asking no favors for himself, becomes the victim of venal politics.

The British historian Alexander Tytler observed, “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can exist only until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury.”

The British economic philosopher Herbert Spencer warned that in a pure democracy, people who don’t pay taxes would be free to vote themselves a generous share of other people’s money: “During the days when extensions of the franchise were in agitation, a maxim perpetually repeated was ŒTaxation without representation is robbery.’ Experience has since made it clear that, on the other hand, representation without taxation entails robbery.” Spencer noted that the “increase of freedom in form” has been followed by “decrease of freedom in fact.”

Spencer again: “All socialism involves slavery.... That which fundamentally distinguishes the slave is that he labors under coercion to satisfy another’s desires.” When some citizens use the franchise to enrich themselves at others’ expense, involuntary servitude has merely taken a new form; chattel slavery may be gone, but the state can become the instrument of the same general purpose of enabling some to live by the labor of others. As Spencer puts it, “The essential question is: How much is [the individual] compelled to labor for other benefit than his own, and how much can he labor for his own benefit?”

Spencer formulated the operative principle of modern democracy: “that no man has any claim to his property, not even to that which he has earned by the sweat of his brow, save by the permission of the community; and that the community may cancel the claim to any extent it sees fit.” Hazlitt himself amplifies this point: “The government may pass and enforce any law it sees fit, guided only by what it regards as the merit of the individual case; and no part of any citizen’s freedom or property shall be respected if a majority of 51 percent or more decide otherwise.”

Let Spencer provide the coda: “The function of Liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit to the power of kings. The function of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the power of Parliaments.” Unfortunately, even the word liberalism has now become a synonym for statism.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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