Keeping Politics to a Minimum


(Panel Discussion on "The Sins of Society vs. the Sins of Big Government" at The Weekend, Colorado Springs, September 5, 1999)

I'd like to begin with a quote from a man whose wisdom is all but forgotten in the city that bears his name: "Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."*

Force is not something to be used lightly. It should be reserved for those occasions when it is truly necessary. If we take that idea seriously, we will try to keep the realm of politics, the realm where people compete to control the use of force, as small as possible.

I realize this injunction is a tough sell with politicians, but I would argue that it leaves us all better off in the long run, including those of us who worry about moral decay. Virtue cannot be compelled; it must be freely chosen. The further a government goes in requiring good behavior, beyond the minimum of forbidding force and fraud, the less potential there is for genuine virtue.

But today I want to talk about a more pragmatic reason for keeping politics out of our lives:

Politics tends to be a winner-take-all game, and you can never be sure who is going to win.

Consider the public school system. Since the government could subsidize education without actually running schools–just as it subsidizes food without raising crops and subsidizes housing without putting up apartment buildings–the purpose of the public schools must be to provide a particular kind of education. But what kind?

That question, in one form or another, is at the root of every debate about curriculum and discipline that school boards and education departments across the country are called upon to resolve. Should biology courses teach evolution as fact? How should history courses deal with religion? What, if anything, should students be taught about sex and drugs? Should the gender and race of authors be factors in drawing up reading lists for literature courses? Should books be excluded because they offend certain groups? Should courses be taught in languages other than English? Should students wear uniforms? Should they be subject to drug testing and locker searches? Should schools ban gang insignia, including six-pointed stars?

That's just a small sampling of controversies that have made the news because of government's entanglement with education. Private schools, of course, have to address the same sorts of issues, with one crucial difference: No one is forced to fund them or attend them. Parents who don't like the theology or the dress code at the local Catholic school can send their kids somewhere else. Or they might decide that the school's excellent test results outweigh those concerns. The one thing they would not do is insist that the school accommodate them by getting rid of all the God talk and the uniforms.

But for parents who cannot afford private tuition on top of the taxes they pay to support the public system, the local government-run school is the only game in town. Without an alternative, they have to either surrender or fight. The acrimony that so often accompanies these debates reflects the fact that one solution will be imposed on everyone. And even if your side happens to win today, there's no guarantee about tomorrow.

The same observation applies to drug policy. Once we allow government to police our bloodstreams, there's no telling which intoxicants it will decide to proscribe. Tobacco, which was initially banned by various authorities in Europe and Asia, eventually became so widely accepted that people no longer even thought of it as a drug. Now tobacco may be moving once again into the category of illicit substances.

Many conservatives have responded to this development with dismay. If someone wants to pollute his body with tobacco combustion products, they imply, that is his right. But they generally do not extend this analysis to marijuana, another weed that people like to smoke.

Now, you could argue that tobacco is different from marijuana in a significant way: While it may kill you in the long run, it does not impair cognition and coordination over the short term. But marijuana's defenders could respond that its psychoactive effects are no more problematic than those of alcohol, and arguably less so. Marijuana does not impair driving ability to the same extent, for example, and it is not linked to violence the way that alcohol is. Moreover, the physical effects of occasional marijuana smoking–the typical pattern–compare quite favorably to those of heavy drinking or a pack-a-day cigarette habit.

The point is not that one side is right, that one weed is objectively worse than the other, but that each has its detractors. Most conservatives today would say that tobacco should be legal and marijuana should not. But Mark Kleiman, a widely cited, mainstream drug policy expert, says marijuana should be legalized while cigarettes should be banned. Although that scenario may seem implausible today, it was the situation that prevailed in a number of states prior to the federal marijuana ban in 1937. Politicizing our choice of intoxicants can lead to results that might strike you as strange, irrational, or even unjust, depending upon who happens to win the debate and which intoxicant you prefer.

Both marijuana and tobacco have acquired cultural connotations that are not obvious from looking at the plants themselves. Not so Piss Christ, the notorious Andre Serrano photograph showing a crucifix submerged in urine. It's pretty clear why some people get upset about that sort of thing, especially when their tax dollars are used to produce or exhibit it. In response, Congress has told the National Endowment for the Arts to "take into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." That directive, in turn, has provoked outrage among critics who see it as subordinating artistic excellence to Jesse Helms's idea of what is proper.

As long as the government gives money to a few lucky artists, it will have to consult somebody's prejudices to determine who is worthy, a process that is bound to be controversial. There is no way to satisfy everyone, even though the program uses everyone's money. And although the forces of decency are now ascendant–to judge by the howls coming from Karen Finley–in a few years the pendulum could swing back. The only permanent solution is to abolish the program. Since private giving to the arts amounts to 100 times the NEA's budget (leaving aside the billions that Americans spend for their own entertainment and edification), culture probably would survive.

The needless contention created by subsidizing the arts is nothing compared to what would happen if the government tried to censor pernicious forms of entertainment, as Professor David Lowenthal proposes in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard. Lowenthal says "the choice is clear: either a rigorous censorship of the mass media, in conformity with responsible republican government, with censors known to all and operating under law, or an accelerating descent into barbarism and the destruction, sooner or later, of free society itself."

To me the choice is not so clear, but here I'll confine myself to a point that Cornell's Jeremy Rabkin made in response to Lowenthal: Once you empower censors, it is hard to assure that their standards will be your standards. "The people prepared to take the job would be ideologues," Rabkin writes. "If the aim is to secure credibility for the board of censors, Lowenthal's own logic suggests that we must reach across ideological divisions. That will encourage a censorship program based not on an actual public consensus but on the familiar logrolling techniques of legislatures. To suppress films that seem to condone adultery or promiscuity, the boards will feel obliged to approve the bans targeting sexist or homophobic or ecocidal messages."

I would add that I'm not sure a "public consensus" exists about which films, recordings, or books are so pernicious that they should be censored, or that we could reach one, or that Lowenthal would agree with it if we could. Isn't the problem, from a conservative perspective, that people like sex and violence too much? If the general public shared Lowenthal's tastes and preferences, the movies and recordings he abhors would not be such big hits. It seems to me that what we really are talking about is imposing an elite's view of what is good entertainment, just as the NEA imposes an elite's view of what is good art.

Not that taking a vote and imposing the majority's choices on everyone would necessarily be any better. The beauty of a free market is that it accommodates diversity. It lets everyone vote with their dollars, and all of those votes count, so that neither an elite nor the majority can dictate the outcome. We get rap and opera, celebrity gossip magazines and obscure political journals, mindless action movies and critically acclaimed historical dramas. The market is unpredictable, and not all of its surprises are pleasant ones. But the same is true of politics, and at least the market takes no for an answer.