Polemic on Politicians and Society

Polemic on Politicians and Society

The Sage

By Michael E. Berumen

I don’t mean this in a personal way. It’s not about a particular politician, though I could name many–––but I simply don’t like politicians as a class, and that is true notwithstanding their political orientation, indeed, even when I agree with many of their positions. There are times I might even put political activists as a class at a close second for contempt. I was once an activist myself, long ago, for what that’s worth. And I confess to occasional bouts of it still when moved by idiocy in the political landscape, such as I see today with the rise of the crypto-Confederacy and fascism. There are of course activists and politicians that I do find likable enough in the particular, that is, when I have more first-hand knowledge of them–––because the fact is, as a hopelessly social being, myself, I like most everyone in the particular. My wife assures me that this is a weakness of mine. Some find it easier to like humanity in the abstract, a detached formulation that even seems a bit insincere or even impossible to me, even somewhat meaningless–––whereas I like people individually, concretely, that is, when I know them.

I think that in order to be a politician one must possess characteristics that I rather abhor, and first and foremost, just the fact the typical politician presumes to know what’s best for me and seeks to arrange my life and the lives of others, which I resent. Among other things, they assume that the economic goods that I acquire fairly, whether it is by luck or desert, are at their disposal––well, by virtue of their power, they truly are at their disposal––and, further, they believe that they are in a position to tell me what to think, and often enough they are even able to tell me how to behave, that is, lest I run sideways of the law and suffer the consequences.

Then there are there are the constant self-congratulatory declarations of doing well by others–––of selfless service and sacrifice–––usually ostensibly directed as testimony about other politicians, disingenuously, for in actuality it is intended to reflect more upon themselves. More on that in a moment. Also, I am perturbed by the fact that politicians of every persuasion possess a kind of personal grandiosity, a sense of self most likely entirely unjustified–––a belief they are specially endowed or entitled, with a destiny to fulfill some end-state conception of theirs with benefits that will inure to the rest of us.

Then there’s the matter of lying. Now, human beings lie, almost (I say almost not quite believing it is even just almost) without exception–––and sophisticated psychological studies show people lie astonishingly often, granted, usually on unimportant things, but often enough on important ones, too. But most human beings are not governing large numbers of other human beings, so some liars are more important than other liars in terms of their impact. Here’s the rub that would set politicians all atwitter in denial: in a true democracy with a population consisting of people with a wide range of interests and capacities, in order to succeed, politicians must be untruthful, either by commission or omission, and if not in a blatant way, then in a vague, slippery sort of way, and usually a bit of both–––for in no other manner could they at once appeal to different constituencies with different and, often enough, opposing interests and still be elected. We are all liars, it’s just a fact and there’s no denying it without lying again. But as opposed to most of us, politicians make their livings at lying, and we pay their way. Let me put it another way: one must be something of a scoundrel in order to succeed as a politician.

An honest ideologue would be no better, though, even if he were elected to office, for an ideologue is by definition unyielding and doctrinaire, and he imagines that the fulfillment of his principles is paramount and above all other concerns, and contrary facts on the ground or opinions of others are very unlikely to alter his view. A dishonest ideologue is even worse, of course. And there’s a good chance he will be, for, as I said, people lie, and in this particular case, with a fanatical ideologue, lies can have big consequences to many, often resulting in authoritarianism. Dishonesty is simply something we must accept in a democracy, that is, if we are to have it, which, as Winston Churchill averred, is the worst possible system except for all the rest.

As I suggested before, no one perpetuates the idea of public service and their personal sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their peers–––even their opponents (usually only when dead, though!)–––more than a politician, which is more often than not simply another means of self-justification. It nauseates me when I hear politicians praise one another for their service in obsequy at funerals, as though they suffer great travail out of duty or encounter untoward danger when seeking power over the rest of us. Heroes among them are few and far in between. It is simply self-praise for a predilection for meddlesomeness. I do not mean to say that political achievement is never actuated by good intentions with even noble ends in mind. But I think there is usually more selfishness behind it than noblesse oblige, and that in at least equal measure there is a desire to fulfil personal ambition, even glory, and certainly to gain the satisfaction that comes from having power and control over others, not to mention their approbation. A politician by his very nature is something of a narcissist, some being more of one than others. I don’t find such people worthy of admiration, generally, though I confess I do make exceptions. But this isn’t about the exceptions–––it’s about most of them.

As for patriotism, it is an emotion akin to supporting a favorite sports team. A perfectly human one, mind you, but a feeling rooted in tribalism. It is not altogether dissimilar to what gang members feel about their band of brothers. And the various symbols that accompany it–––flags, songs, and statues and such–––are akin to a gang’s or sport team’s various totems. Love of country is love of an abstraction, one that is idealized, usually a conception that doesn’t even exist in the real world. This is not to suggest that I am personally devoid of such feelings, as I am human and being human I too have tribal feelings; but I do view them as primitive, and not especially worthy of rational men, something reason should seek to overcome, control, and not feed. Such emotions, these clannish feelings of patriotism–––or in its more energetic manifestations, nationalism and jingoism–––are the source of considerable evil in the world, a principal cause of many, no most horrible wars and much suffering.

With that said, I do separate patriotism–––the love of country and the (not uncommon) feelings of one’s country’s superiority or exceptional nature–––from duty to country. By that I mean the sense of duty owed to the society that has offered one certain benefits and protections, and also the duty to one’s neighbors and family, or more broadly speaking, the duty to one’s countrymen. I have a rather Socratic view of this, which is to say, I obey the laws of my country and fulfil the duties assigned to me (within the limits of good conscience and what I deem to be morally right), such as paying taxes, not committing crimes, obeying contract laws, and even defending it when it becomes necessary. Much as Socrates refused exile instead of death when found in violation of Athenian law of corrupting the youth and such–––a society from which he said he gained much and, he believed, had a duty to obey–––I think one acquires a certain set of duties just by living in a society and must adhere to the consequences of its laws. I do see limits to this, and a place for conscientious objection. I do not subscribe to the Socratic view that one owes his very life to the state, though I think one can argue we sometimes owe a great deal. This will obviously vary by the kind of societal arrangements we have, and the benefits we derive from it. While I might not have explicitly signed-up for or accepted these duties, neither did I explicitly deny the benefits or opportunities bestowed upon me, many or even most of which I took for granted. Therefore, my acceptance of those duties is at least to some degree implied by my having also freely taken advantage of the benefits bestowed upon me. The matter of choice certainly enters into the matter and can be a mitigating factor. We do not have a choice as to where we are born or even in many instances where we sometimes end up living. There are times the institutions of a society are so unjust that they must be resisted at great cost, and thereby other duties are justifiably nullified.

My political views can be summarized fairly simply. I subscribe to tolerance, not of everything, but of differences that obtain in society that do me no harm, and, therefore, to pluralism; believe that the material goods and assets fairly acquired by others belong to them to own and dispose of as they see fit, with some constraints (such as not causing undue suffering by virtue of one’s use of the property); believe in the rule of law, and not the caprice of men (understanding that civil disobedience is sometimes defensible); hold that people ought to have the right to choose their leaders; believe that minorities have rights that need to be protected from oppressive majorities; accept the role of logic and science, which is to say, reason, and as such I eschew both superstition and ignorance. I therefore suppose I am properly characterized as a liberal, to resurrect the once venerable appellation that has been sullied in recent decades.

I do not hew to any overarching system of ends from which all other social principles are derived, which characterizes an ideologue–––that is, beyond the most rudimentary kind of moral principles that can be derived from conjoining two distinct concepts into one, namely, impartiality and rationality, the former meaning without bias, the latter meant in the psychological sense of rational behavior. The conjoint principle of impartial rationality underlies a moral code that can be universal, which is to say, applicable everywhere, by everyone, and at all times. We know, for example, it is irrational for one to choose his own suffering (or death) without another, greater reason (such as to avoid greater pain, as surgery might require, or to protect a loved one), and if we act impartially, we extend this basic, rational prohibition to others, and without regard to the benefits or disadvantages for one’s own self or others about whom we care. This is a long way of saying that the guiding principle of universal morality is to avoid causing unjustified suffering, and that all other just principles are derived therefrom.

No one could reason that we ought to promote happiness as a universal requirement, though, or some other conception of the good, for there is no objective standard of reference for such ideas upon which all rational people would agree. However, there is such a standard for suffering and death, and specifically for their avoidance, that is, without an overriding reason. It is a condition of rationality. Conceptions of the good–––the things we believe we ought to promote or act upon for society as a whole or for people individually––cannot be similarly universalized as requirements (unlike a rational prohibition, the avoidance of suffering) to apply to everyone in a way that all rational people would agree, for there are no objective standards of reference to validate what one person thinks is good versus another’s conception. Nothing in rationality or reason suggests we should prefer one conception of good over another, but it does require we not seek to suffer (or die) for its own sake.

Democratic political systems are theoretically manifestations of our ends, our desires, which reason can lead us to fulfill by various means–––but ends that are in and of themselves not determined by reason, as David Hume famously showed, but are desires arising from passion. Reason does provide us with means to ends, though, and can aid us in avoiding suffering unless justified, a principle we all would extend to others if we act impartially. We can also formulate exceptions to rules dictated by impartial rationality, rules such as do not lie or kill, when given specific facts. The justification can be made by using the same formula–––universalizing it impartially such that I, too, or another whom I care about, could as easily be the victim or beneficiary of it, given the same essential facts of the matter. Thus, thereby, one might universalize an exception to a rule against lying to protect an individual from a life-threatening circumstance, e.g., telling the Nazi one is not hiding Jews in the basement–––or formulate that the suffering that will surely attend war will be outweighed by the lives it will save and greater suffering it will prevent. This, impartial rationality, is the formula by which all political (and economic) rules and acts ought to be judged, indeed, by which all social acts ought to be judged. My ethical and political philosophy can be summed up in two words, namely, impartial rationality, and I submit it is the very essence and sine qua non of liberalism.

There are things that trouble me about self-described leftists. Foremost among them is their certainty about how others ought to live their lives. But also one of the left’s hallmark characteristics is the focus on motives or on “good” intentions, and the emphasis on what lies behind an act or prescription, that which it is assumed gives the act its moral meaning and merit. I reject this Kantian outlook, though I accept much else of what Immanuel Kant says about morality, especially in relation to impartiality (his categorical imperative, though flawed as he has devised it, is essentially a formula to achieve impartial universality), and also his defense of democracy and individual liberty. Morality is about what we do, though, not simply about what we feel or believe, or about our intentions. Sentiment and belief are worthless, that is, unless followed by the right act. Would that it were as easy as simply believing a certain way! In this leftists share much with various religious doctrines, most notably Christian doctrines that consider morality to be more about what we believe than about what we actually do.

And as with Christians of various stripes, some on the left also believe there is something impure about wanting or acquiring property, or to make a profit in the process of exchange, expending labor, investing one’s goods to acquire even more, or even by serendipity. The New Testament itself tells us that it is hard for the rich to enter Heaven. The profit motive is seen as being selfish, a character flaw, and one to be eschewed. As if self-proclaimed selflessness and the satisfaction derived thereby were not in and of itself a form of hubris and selfishness. Profit is conceived as something not based in moral desert, and profit-taking is seen as a zero-sum proposition, whereby someone gains, someone loses. The leftist sometimes subscribes more to a kind of theology than empirical economics. This disdain for commerce and profit dates back at least to Plato’s Laws. And while it is less important to Christian thought today, especially in Protestant theology, it is manifest throughout early Christian literature and Scripture, and it was profoundly influential in the development of many leftist doctrines.

So-called capitalists (I am not one–––I believe both capitalist acts and socialist acts can be justified, and not in a “system” consisting only of one at the exclusion of the other) are wrong to say capitalism is justified because it is more efficient than state-ownership of economic goods or state-controlled pricing––even though an abundance of empirical evidence suggests that this is the case. Efficiency is not a moral criterion. Taken to an extreme, a strict utilitarian argument could leave a great many people impoverished or enslaved in order to maximize average prosperity. This is the great flaw with libertarian economic arguments favoring profit above all else in commerce, such as some of the arguments made by economist Milton Friedman. Private property and its disposition–––how we use it, can be justified on moral grounds, when it is property that is fairly acquired (not mystically instantiated by labor, a la Locke, Marx, and Rand––which would bestow property on both oxen and horses), but also only when its use does not cause others to suffer, for morality always trumps efficiency.

The political right bases much of its dogma on moral desert. Rightists often ignore the singular advantage of good fortune, e.g., being born in a particular place and time, genetic advantages, and having particular experiences such as accidents of coming in contact with the right people at the right time, including a particular kind of upbringing. They ignore luck, in other words. They imagine the things they acquire result entirely from their own effort–––a kind of magical thinking. The corollary is that the privations of others are in some manner their own fault–––and often enough believed to result from slothfulness or shiftlessness, or in some cases because god wills it to be so. They ignore the advantages bestowed upon them that they had nothing to do with, ones others did not have through no fault or moral deficiency of their own. Consequently, they often are more loath to share their gains, for example, through taxation, notwithstanding the fact that simple luck and the benefits of society (protection of the law) might have made possible much of what they have.

People on both the right and the left make a fetish out of democracy, but neither side really cares much for it when they don’t like the result. Democracy is a very messy kind of business––and, let’s face it, people are often not very smart and they sometimes even operate against their own interests, or at least what others (including me) believe to be in their interest–––and that’s part of the point. Who gets to decide this? And why should someone else be in charge of deciding my interests or, similarly, why should I be in charge of deciding another’s? I am not fond of stupid people coming together at the ballot box to tell me how to live. On the other hand, there’s little evidence to suggest that smart people are any better, and, plenty of evidence to suggest they can be equally or even more dangerous when given unencumbered power. There is unfortunately no good alternative to democracy, certainly not authoritarianism or anarchy, though I’d take my chances with the latter over the former. Over time, democracy tends to work out, but not always––and the tyranny of the majority always remains problematic, which is why a system of law and representative procedure are necessary to protect individual rights from mob rule or from the opinion of the moment–––laws made by elected representatives who, though largely dishonest and self-serving themselves, are still much more likely through reflection and compromise to come up with something more sensible than what we’d get with a direct democracy.

Of course, leftists often prattle on about “the people”–––holding this disembodied abstraction as their special and abiding interest. They make a fetish of the poor too, and yet, studies show they do little themselves out of their own pocket for the poor. The reality is that much of what “the people” really desire is eschewed by the left, that is, their superstitions, tastes, values, and habits. The left has contempt for their unwashed ways–––ways they would hope to change to suit their conception of how “the people” ought to be, as opposed to how they really are. So the left comforts itself, deludes itself, really, with a belief that “the people” are just being misled and are ignorant of the true facts, and if they only knew them, they’d come running to their righteous cause. The unlettered and uncultured ways of the underclass are seen as manifestations of their victimization in the class struggle. Of course, this is mostly rubbish, for the rabble genuinely prefers its rabbling ways, and even think their would-be do-gooders on the left consists of wild-eyed, impractical kooks. In reality, “the people” have disdain in equal measure for their would-be protectors as the latter truly have for them; but they are not in denial about it. This is not to say that I am a fan of the mores of the unwashed masses. I am not a devotee to some wooly-minded abstraction about “the people” or “the working man,” nor do I believe in some sort of special virtue of the poor. Such nonsense has helped give rise to Trumpism, a modern form fascism, in our own time, and in no small measure facilitated by the pandering of the media. I reject the idea on empirical grounds that one economic class is inherently more virtuous than another, or even that virtue accompanies literacy and education, for it plainly doesn’t. The rise of Hitler, after all, occurred in arguably the most literate society on earth in the early 1930s.

The political right is of course fascinated by and loves authority, despite its occasional paeans to individual liberty. In reality, liberty is the furthest thing from the typical rightists’ mind, especially as it pertains to the liberty of others. Liberty for themselves, maybe, though the typical rightist is quite enamored of structure and hierarchy. They require strong father figures to tell themselves and especially others how to behave, to provide rules of conduct for society, and of course, to punish the wicked who violate them. They like order, regularity, predictability–––and they generally deplore non-conformity. They also share with the left a disdain for people with whom they disagree, and at their most ideological, they are every bit as intolerant. People on the ideological left, of course, imagine they are more tolerant, but they often are not, and left to their own devices many would just as soon have people with whom they disagree ostracized or put in a re-education camp.

The right seems to have a special love of symbolism and abstractions such as flag and country, the latter being more idealized than anything, and often enough based on some halcyon time from the past that never really existed as they imagine it did. They seldom love their countrymen as they really are; rather, they love those who think as they do and more often than not they despise the rest. So love of country is quite conditional.

The right also is especially apt to see punishment, retribution, as the proper solution to get others to obey and to obtain justice, whereas the left is more inclined to rehabilitation and second chances. It is perhaps not unexpected therefore that the right prefers strongmen as leaders, whereas the left prefers nurturers. Both are susceptible to cults of personality. In fact, the populations constituting the greatest cults were under leftist rule in the 20th century, notably the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. People on the right and left are not nearly as different from one another as they’d like to believe in terms of their vulnerabilities and naiveté. It is not surprising that many on the right tend to be religious and seek the ultimate father figure in their belief in a supreme being who brings order to the universe. People on the left often settle for some cosmic notion of justice––natural law or a dialectical progressivism––social forces that inexorably lead to the left’s idealized version of the just society–––but they also can put great store in charismatic leaders who are seen to be more “caring” for people, more “mothering” nurturers as opposed to the stern father figures that the right so often prefers.

Finally, lest someone mistake my point of view, I believe so-called moderation can be as much a fetish as the various shibboleths of the right and left­­­, and that moderation it is more a matter of temperament or technique than a well-formulated position. At its worst it can be a cowardly outlook, compromising when there should be no compromise. At its best it can be accepting compromise for a greater good as a matter of tactical necessity. There can be no truly “moderate” political view, for what would that be–––something in between true and false or right and wrong? An Aristotelian mean of sorts? What I am arguing for, here, is a liberal outlook, properly understood, and I am arguing against tribalism, silliness, and pretense. I am not promoting cynicism, but I am promoting skepticism. I am arguing against both leftist and rightest comprehensive and invariant systems from which all principles are held to flow, and instead, arguing that social principles should flow from logic and evidence, and that before formulating a position, that we should consider how the essential properties of the facts at hand bear on other, similar instances, and ask ourselves if such a position can be willed impartially to apply to all without regard to how we ourselves might benefit or lose in the same circumstances. I am arguing for making exceptions to principles based on universalizable and impartial prescriptions. Most of all, I am arguing for the conjoint principle of impartial rationality–––and for healthy skepticism about those who presume to arrange our lives through political activity. Such people are necessary to a well-ordered and just society–––and they will be with us as long as there are more than a handful of people–––but these people and their ideas always must be put into proper perspective and viewed through a skeptical lens.


Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, and philosophy. He resides with his wife in Colorado. He is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. He has been writing about and warning against Fascism in America and Trump for several years.