Politics doesn’t just make the world around us worse. It makes us worse, as well.
Politics is nothing to be proud of. We shouldn’t believe in it, shouldn’t get excited about it. Shouldn’t think it’s noble or, worse, fun. On a good day, politics is a silly game with negative externalities. A waste of countless hours and countless minds–hours and minds that could’ve gone to productive, radical, world‐changing, and life‐improving pursuits. Politics, on a good day, is lost opportunities. On a bad day, it’s livelihoods and sometimes lives destroyed. It’s violence and ignorance and fear.
Strong words demand definitions, though. So what do I mean by “politics?” I mean the act of deciding for others via the mechanisms of the state. Choosing for others, and then getting government to make them go along with our choices. Granted, when we make decisions via those mechanisms–by, say, voting–we expect the outcome will apply to ourselves and not just to other people. But it’s misleading to say we are “deciding for ourselves” when we vote, because if what we vote for is something we would’ve done anyway, we could always choose to do it independent of a vote. If I think contributing money to a cause is worthwhile, I don’t need the state to make me do it. I can cut a check any time. By voting, by shifting from the personal and voluntary to the political and compulsory, we call for the application of force. A vote is the majority compelling the minority to comply with the majority’s wishes. Thus politics is a method of decision‐making where choices are moved from individuals choosing privately to groups choosing collectively, and where the decisions those groups arrive at are backed by law and regulation. It’s this last aspect–the backing by the force of law–that distinguishes politics from, say, five friends voting on where to go for dinner.
Most of us have at least a sense there’s something wrong with politics. Watch cable news, listen to talk radio, sit through weeks or months of campaign ads, and it’s impossible to avoid the unseemliness of political practice. It’s off‐putting and makes us, or ought to make us, question the character of anyone enthusiastic about it. But its pernicious influence extends beyond those who embrace politics as a vocation or hobby. Politics represents a corrupting influence in all our lives, a stumbling block in our paths toward living well. No matter how minimal our participation.
Politics accomplishes this by undermining our ability to practice well the art of good living. One way is indirect: politics contributes to an environment where learning the skill of living well becomes more difficult than it would be otherwise. An important prerequisite to living well is a certain amount of material security–if we’re just scraping by, we have no time for higher pursuits. We’re used to common libertarian claims, grounded in economics, that a system where decisions are made politically–whether through the democratic process or by legislators and bureaucrats instead of by individuals–will lead to less wealth and innovation, and thus give us fewer resources to lead the kinds of lives we would decide to lead in a world of choice and plenty. In this way, a politically controlled environment becomes less compatible with maximally good lives.
But politics doesn’t just make the world around us worse. It makes us worse, as well. When we participate in politics–by seeking office, by voting–we take part in a system where we attempt to decide for others while they attempt to decide for us, and where those decisions, whoever makes them, are backed by violence or, at the very least, the threat of violence. It’s a system where the participants say to each other, “I know what’s best for you, you need to do what I say, and if you don’t, these men with guns will threaten you or take your money or lock you in a cage or kill you.” Such a system encourages us to deal with each other in ways beneath the standards of behavior we ought to reach for, and it encourages us to see each other not as friends and companions and fellow seekers of the good life, but as enemies and rivals and obstacles in the way of finding happiness.
Politics inculcates pettiness, short‐sightedness, Manichean thinking, tribal feuds, selfishness, and rage. It discourages reason and respect and a basic appreciation of the dignity of others, especially those who seek lives different from our own. It makes us less likely to find virtuous mentors or learn from the virtuous actions of others, because everyone we encounter will themselves suffer from its corrosive influence. Politics encourages extreme reactions instead of careful seeking of the proper, measured response. Politics distances decisions from local knowledge and so limits moral wisdom by making it less likely we will act to bring about virtuous outcomes even when motivated by virtuous impulses.
Politics is, at best, a blunt instrument, though perhaps an occasionally necessary one. But its use has costs, including, I believe, degradation of our character. We should resort to politics only when we have no other options, and then only reluctantly. At the very least, it should never be cause for celebration or held up as the ideal of civic virtue. In short, politics makes us worse. We’d be better people without it. Better off if we rejected the political as a means to flex our will in the world and instead made more effort to live up to our potential as rational, discoursive beings. The good life is not the life of politics and politics is, at a fundamental level, incompatible with the good life.