What is most puzzling about the scandal with Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York) isn’t how stupid the man has been and apparently managed to be to the last moment before he came clean (enough). What is really puzzling is why in the face of repeated scandals and corruption across the world and this country, there are well educated folks who continue to be confident that if only one hands a problem over to politicians and their appointees, all will be fine.
I have never believed in the innate stupidity of human beings. Free will disproves that idea. Some are, sure enough, very stupid and nearly constantly so; others are stupid periodically; while yet others have managed to keep their sanity and focus without fail. But judging by history and current affairs, it comes down to my favorite graph, the bell shaped curve. At one extreme are the truly mindless; in the middle are most of us with our vacillating mental acuity, while at the other extreme are those utterly rare cases of people who never let up, are always aware and in focus.
If my bell shaped curve accurately reflects the distribution of willful mindlessness versus mindfulness in the human species, the likelihood of having a fully sane political order is minimal. At best now and then throughout human history moments or perhaps brief eras of upright political affairs can be expected. And why? Because the kind of nonsense exhibited by Weiner, Schwartzenegger, et al., just will never be purged from our midst.
So does that mean that politics must always be a failed undertaking? It would seem so, at least as politics is understood today. What people tend to expect from politics is something that had been explicitly promises by those who defended the ancient regime, monarchies, empires and such, namely, that problems in society need top-down solutions because only those at the top are smart and good enough to be trusted.
While few today advocate this view up front in the West, many still believe it. It amounts to what Jonathan R. T. Hughes called "the governmental habit." That is to say, despite the fact that the theory is no longer convincing and history has completely disproved it, many people are still supporters of one or another type of statism, not so much from understanding but from a habit that has been cultivated – indeed woven into the fabric of society, including language – for centuries on end. (Just check how enthusiastic people still are about royal weddings and inaugurations!)
What can politics offer but continued failure? A suggestion emerged from the works of classical liberals and today’s libertarians. It is that politics must be about no more than defending the rights of citizens. Akin to what referees and umpires are expected to do at games, politicians and their staff must confine their involvement with society to identifying and fending off those who would introduce coercive force into human relations. Politics, in short, must be purely defensive, never pro-active. So confined, it can serve the citizenry reasonably – though not perfectly – well.
The nickname his colleagues in Congress have given Dr. Ron Paul, namely, "Dr. No," captures this job quite accurately. Just as referees at games must focus on what players must not do, not on what they need to do, so with politicians. This will not tax them too hard; they will not need to be angels or saints, just as no one expects that from referees. Sure, they will still need to have integrity, just as the cop on the beat does. But they will not be asked to produce any projects – that is what the players of the game do, what citizens do.
If this kind of politics were to develop – and it will take time to wean most people of the governmental habit – then the field will no longer seem so attractive to all those power-seekers, all those easily corrupted people who enter it all the time and get caught either with their hands in the till or their pants down.
None of this is the familiar Utopian thinking we find in so much of political philosophy and theory. That’s because this kind of highly constrained politics offers something minimal, not the solution to all of our problems in medicine, farming, business, the arts, the sciences and the rest of the fields of great importance to people which they need to address in peace, without the benefit of politics which specializes in the use of force. Only one problem will be laid at the feet of politicians, namely, keeping social life peaceful.