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Oct 3, 2013

What Politics Is

Politics is what you get when you add violence to discourse.

Quite a few pieces I’ve written counsel limiting, minimizing, or outright abandoning politics. Politics makes us poorer, and less free. It makes us worse people. And it’s inhuman.

But what is politics? How is it different from all the other ways we interact and make group decisions? One way to look at politics is as the act of several people coming together to make a decision collectively, in such a way that not everyone gets everything he wants. If we go with that definition, then politics is an unavoidable (and often desireable) part of living in a community. In which case, we’d want to keep politics around because community matters deeply. So much so, in fact, that we really can’t live well without it.

When I talk about politics–and I fully admit I use the term in a narrower sense than is common–I mean something a good deal less broad than “discourse leading to a decision about policy.” Instead, politics is what you get when you modify public discourse and group decision making by adding “and the winners get to use violence to enforce their will.” When the decision makers conclude, for instance, that raw milk is harmful, and then use violence to prevent people from drinking it, that’s politics. When businesses, threatened by competition, convince politicians to enact laws against their competitors—laws back by violence—that’s politics.

It’s violence–or, more often, the threat of violence–that sets politics apart, making it fundamentally different from other modes of social interaction. So when I say we should limit or abandon politics, I mean we should limit the presence of violence in our interactions with others.

Of course, the mere presence of violence or the threat of violence doesn’t always mean we’re talking about politics. A mugging is violent, but it isn’t (usually) political. (If we pass a law to take the victim’s money, that is political.) Politics requires something more. That’s where discourse comes in. Politics is about social decisions, when the members of a society set out to define its contours and debate its rules. 

Thus politics doesn’t exist in a dictatorship or absolute monarchy. When one person makes the rules, we aren’t talking about a political society. The lines can get blurry, though. Is it political when two people decide for all the rest? No. But does the presence of politics depend on everyone participating in the decision making? Again, probably not. Yet where that switch occurs isn’t easy to pin down. Fortunately, thinking about and applying this political/non-political distinction works despite the absence of a bright line. A democracy is political. Plato’s utopia is not.

So politics is discourse leading to decisions about policy, with the outcome of those decisions backed by violence or the threat of violence.

Abandoning politics does not, unfortunately, mean abandoning the use of violence to exercise our will. Basic rights can only meaningfully exist with the support of violence in their defense. What good is my right to life if I may not (violently, if necessary) defend it–or get someone else to (violently, if necessary) defend it for me? No, as long as there exist people who would use violence (political or otherwise) against us, we will need to resort to violence to defend ourselves.

This view of when to permit and when to prohibit violence is a core argument for libertarianism, as the philosopher Roderick Long explains quite clearly.

[J]ust as courage, generosity, and temperance are the virtues that define the appropriately human attitudes toward danger, giving, and bodily pleasures respectively, so the virtue of justice defines the appropriately human attitude toward violence. A maximally human life will give central place to the distinctively human faculty of reason; and one’s life more fully expresses this faculty to the extent that one deals with others through reason and persuasion, rather than through violence and force. To choose cooperation over violence is to choose a human mode of existence over a bestial one.

Hence the virtuous person will refrain from initiating coercion against others. But what will the virtuous person’s response be to the initiation of coercion on the part of others? In this case, cooperation is not an option, and so the moral agent is not faced with a choice between cooperation and violence. Still, it might be thought that the most human response would be one that forswore self-defense in favor of continuing attempts at persuasion, even in the face of implacable aggression. But this, in my judgment, would make the opposite error from the one the initiator of violence makes; to submit passively to aggression is to try to live a superhuman life, and to value our vulnerable embodiedness too little. Forswear the initiation of violence, but employ violence when necessary to repel the initiatory violence of others; this TIT-FOR-TAT approach seems to me to best strike the Golden Mean balance between the subhuman aggression of the criminal and the superhuman aspirations of the pacifist. Our obligation to abstain from the initiation of coercion translates into a right, on the part of others, not to be aggressed against. On the other hand, since we have no obligation to refrain from self-defense, no right is generated on the part of others to aggress against us. In short, libertarianism.

Yet as we can see from the pervasiveness of politics, we allow far more violence in our daily dealings than than simple defense of rights. The necessity of defense means leaving the door to violence open a crack. Sadly, we’ve failed to resist the urge to open it far more.

Good people, who interact with others via reason instead of violence, must work to swing it back in a moral–and humane–direction.