I remember the first time I met an actual politician.
I was working in a law office in a small town in rural St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and I was youngish twentysomething. My boss was a member of one of the well-connected older families that ran the country (read: Good Ol' Boy) and so he had to go to a political fundraiser for Steny Hoyer.
Well, I had never given politics a thought in my life before then. I had read Thucydides, and so, politically, I favored Athenian democracy over Spartan communism. I had read Ayn Rand, so I favored the handsome rail road executives and atmospheric energy inventors over the wretched looters and moochers, but I never thought I would meet a Spartan or a looter in real life.
We ate a plate of chicken dinner, and Steny stood up and gave a stump speech. The speech was an eye-opener. He referred to no principles, offered no promises, spoke of no future. All he did was say he planned to loot the taxpayers and give the swag to St. Mary's County if elected.
It was like listening to a psychopath. With such innocent charm and cold realism he talked about robbing others and splitting the take with us in the room. There was no sugar coating or double-talk: he nakedly said he meant to take and take and take, and if we voted for him, we would get a cut. He didn't even try to hide his meaning.
Speech over, everyone else stood up and applauded. Even though I was the junior man at the firm, and perhaps in danger of my job, I sat there with my arms folded, and I would have been damned before I would stand and clap for this highwayman.
I was the only guy in the room who kept his seat. It might have been a meaningless gesture on my part, or a mean one, but I am glad I did it.
Oh, and he is still in office. In fact, he is the House Majority Leader. (http://www.hoyer.house.gov/)
Not long after I was indeed fired from that job (not because of any conflict of principle with my boss, but merely because I was slothful and slow), and came into a much more favorable position as newspaperman, indeed, muckraker. That was a task to which I was not slow, but worked energetically. The difference in my motivation was remarkable.
I soon came to learn that my first politician was not some bizarre exception, but was, rather, the rule. My notion that one decided one's practical steps based on specific applications of ideals, axioms, precedent or first principles (which is, if you think about it, how all law cases are decided) turned out to be the bizarre exception.
Not a single politician, local or national, I met in the course of my newspaper career had any knowledge of the basic principles of economics, for example. Imagine if the engineer of a train did not understand the basic principles of how the engine was constructed, and did not know what was supposed to happen if this lever or that one was pressed. The only machine they know how to work is the machinery of politics. When a machine politician runs up three trillion dollars in debt, it is not because he has some special or expert understanding of international finance. Indeed, if he is anything like the politicians I used to know, the machine politician knows less of finance than any housewife or small business owner, because, for him, cause is not connected to effect.
Instead, the decisions of politicians, as best I could tell, were based on emotion. And not their emotion, but on the emotion of the voters, as determined by the press and their other sources of opinion. I saw commissions and committees run by often knowledgeable and sometimes wise men; I saw commissions and committees unable to render just or fair verdicts because of the innate unfairness of the rules under which they operated, but trying nonetheless. I also saw a good deal of corruption, and a few examples of outrageous unfairness, and some downright crimes. While there was enough corruption afoot to cast a stink over the whole county, oddly, it was a relatively few number of men who were corrupt, and even they indulged in wrongdoing a relatively few number of times, at least, during my years on the newspaper.
I blame the lack of principle, not the character of the men. Had the laws been more firmly grounded on Constitutional principles, had rights been more jealously guarded, had the people not be rendered supine and servile because of their dependency on the government, then a proper adversarial caution would have hindered the government's inroads on the public liberty. Men no better or bolder than the corrupt Good Ol' Boys of St. Mary's County, in a properly limited government, could have ruled virtuously.
But when the nerves of discipline are relaxed, when true religion is ignored, when the public is tempted to sloth and lulled into an uncriticial, all-trusting dependency, then the servants slowly become the masters, contemptuous and condescending masters, and the mission of the masters is to maintain the system of spoiling and despoiling the public so as to maintain their mastery.
The touchstone, the one issue, which never fails to illumine all others, is gun control. The contemptuous and condescending regard an armed populous as a danger, for much the same reason a nursemaid would regard an armed nursery of children as a danger, or a doctor would regard an armed patient. You declaw your tomcats when you see their need to fight rival toms as less significant than your concern for your furniture. Better yet, you neuter tom the cat, so his passions no longer motivate him to catfights with rivals. Best of all, keep him in the house, tame and inoffensive, well fed and perfectly safe. Gun controllers do not have arguments to support their positions, they have emotion. In this case the emotion is a mingling of contempt and fear: they look at you the way you look at your housecat, a domestic creature dependent on the government for your food and comfort, whose efforts at self-defense pose more risks to your master than they abate. It is not as if the government needs or wants to call up the militia these days, or organize a posse.
Men who live in the days of gold are soft men, easily bent as gold is easily bent. Men who live in the days of iron are iron men, who will break before they will bend. To take the iron out of the hand of men, all you need to do is offer them gold. To do this, the government needs an endless supply of gold, and when it cannot have it, an endless supply of paper currency, fiat money, IOU's against the lives and lifework of future taxpayers.
I come away from the years as a newsman, picking through the unsightly poop of public affairs, the vast system of civic robbery, convinced that good government exists to maintain law and order, to establish justice, and perhaps to maintain public decency. Anything beyond these modest ambitions invites a corruption of the morals and manners of the people. In the early days of the Republic, modest budgets, modest public works, the absence of a tax on incomes and the presence of a gold-based currency, all curbed the ambition of corrupt politicians. The kind of politician who exists merely to loot the public had less scope for corruption in those times, because less opportunity for looting was open to him, as relatively few were dependents of the government. Buying the votes of a few California railroad barons was not the same as buying the votes of farmers, teachers, old folks, welfare moms, automobile factory hands, homeowners, and bank customers from coast to coast.
The idea that the kind of politician who exists merely to loot the public can be entrusted with supervising a government-run school system, a government-run health care industry, a government-run motor car industry, a government-run banking and insurance industry, a government-run housing industry, a government-run federal reserve board, a government-run commission on arts and sciences, and so on, is an idea so worthy of brays of uproarious laughter that only someone who has never met a politician can maintain it.