by Roger Prather
I have many fond memories of time spent with my grandfather. Some of the earliest are of me watching him watch professional wrestling. My grandfather’s one vice was professional wrestling, and boy did he get into it. He would laugh and slap his knee when the bad guys got slapped around by the good guys. He expressed suspicious optimism when a villain switched sides, and “knew it all along” when a good guy made an alliance with the bad. Today, I can only laugh at professional wrestling: choreographed combat, outrageous speeches, and staged news conferences. It’s really a brilliant form of entertainment, playing on the emotions of fans by exploiting their desire to identify with someone they see as good, while opposing someone they view as bad. In the ring, heroes and villains pretend (convincingly) to dislike one another and everything they’re about, but in reality, after the match is over, they’re slapping each other on the back and sharing a beer. But in public, significant effort is exerted in preserving the illusion – good guys share a locker room apart from the bad guys, but ride to the arena on the same tour bus.
Observing our two party system in the United States, it strikes me that it’s much like professional wrestling – choreographed combat. Most political observers can quickly identify the fringe members of each party, those who could potentially go either way – the players who, with the safety of reelection passed, switch parties to an outcry of “I knew it all along!” And what about the bipartisan alliances, when we hope our good guy is positively influencing the bad guy, but fear the consequences of the alliance. And when our party of choice soundly defeats the opposition, we hoot and holler, confident that, finally, our guys get the spotlight for a while. And certainly we know that it’s only for a while, because it’s all really just a choreographed show, exploiting our desire to identify with something. And at the end of it all, they’re sharing the same tour bus.
I recently re-read some of the writings of John Stuart Mill. In his Chapters on Socialism, published in 1879, he discussed the emerging philosophies of socialism and communism, reporting, rather than editorializing, about the debate between competing political ideologies. As I read Chapters, I felt as though I was listening to a modern day discussion that still rages on between American liberals and conservatives. Owners v. Workers. Capital v. Labor. Have v. Have-not. As I thought about what I was reading, it struck me that this debate has been going on for over 100 years, but with plenty of evidence on either side. Through the Twentieth Century, free(er) markets have outperformed and outlasted centrally planned socialist economies. From the complete failures of Soviet and Chinese systems, to the emerging failures in Western Europe, it seems clear that a centrally planned economy based on the absolute redistribution of wealth will fail. And, to the extent that a mixed economy like those of Germany, France, Greece, and Great Britain is able to fumble along for some time, the buck must stop somewhere, usually on a steep cliff overlooking complete economic and political collapse.
Even in the United States, a mixed economy for sure, but still the freest market in the world, we’re faced with serious consequences resulting from our own attempts at central planning and wealth redistribution. So why are we still having this debate? Why does the middle class, the largest piece of the electorate, vacillate between conservatism and liberalism? The answer lies, perhaps, in our professional wrestling analogy.
Political and economic writers throughout history have recognized that any government, once in power, will tend to grow in power and authority until it is replaced or placed in check. Human nature, as recognized by Thomas Hobbes, tends to seek power, authority, and recognition. Once gained, power will increase through the ambition and self-interest of those in power. This realization is why the Revolutionary generation founded the United States (and every member state) with a written constitution – with hope (rather than true belief) that a written constitution could better limit the inevitable tendency in government to increase its own power and control. This constitution was written with the Lockean philosophy that the only legitimate function of government was to protect individual liberty from encroachment. Unfortunately for Locke’s ideal, government itself, as a human institution, will also be driven by ambition and self-interest leading it to itself encroach upon the very liberty it was designed to protect.
In the United States today, few have experienced life in a tyrannical, totalitarian, or violently anarchical state. For over two hundred years we have held peaceful elections, enjoyed relative economic stability and growth, and sat as the most influential military and economic power in the world. Under such conditions, it is difficult (impossible for some) to even imagine how liberty could die in America. But it can die, and with each passing decade through the Twentieth Century until today, the federal government has grown in size, scope and power with a corresponding decrease in the real and potential liberty of American citizens. Those who disagree with this assertion, believing that the size of government bears no relation to liberty, are simply wrong, for every power that government can exercise over an individual is consequently a power that the individual cannot exercise over himself. And the power to govern oneself is liberty.
That government, as an institution, acts self-interestedly by increasing in power, size, and influence presents a more accurate view of the class warfare discussed in Mill’s Chapters on Socialism. Our debates in politics often revolve around convincing the middle class electorate of who their enemies in society are. Democrats would have the middle and lower classes believe that their enemy is the capitalist and the wealthy who build their wealth and power through the labor and ingenuity of the middle class – thus, socialist and liberal policy promises to level the playing field and make sure that everyone gets what’s due to them through egalitarianism and wealth redistribution. Republicans would have the upper and middle classes believe that their enemy is the poor who take advantage of socialist, liberal, and Democrat policies that favor wealth redistribution and unfairly tax the labor and ingenuity of the middle class. While there’s a kernel of truth in the argument of each side, the reality is that these aren’t two polar opposites vying for votes – it’s more along the line of choreographed political theater that plays on the emotions of American voters.
A more accurate view of class warfare is to see American society in two segments: a governing class and everyone else. The governing class consists not just of politicians, but a massive federal bureaucracy that in self-interest seeks to grow in size, power, and influence. Regardless of individual political affiliations, the people who make up the government class, out of their own self interest, will stop at nothing to maintain the existence from which they derive income, lifestyle, and influence. Democrats present voters with a shadowy bogeyman portrayed as the insidious rich man who gets richer off the back of the middle class while Republicans present their own bogeyman in the person of the welfare recipient and his socialist paymaster who taxes the working to pay the lazy. In actuality it’s more like the heroes and villains of professional wrestling, who play their part in the big show put on for those watching. For the wrestlers, it’s to hide the fact that they’re all just paid actors who follow the script. For the government, it’s to control the debate and keep voters fighting about symptoms rather than focusing on the real problem – that there is a government class, producing nothing of social or economic value, that subsists on the taxes taken from the upper, middle, and lower classes, that can contribute social and economic value.
By controlling the debate, this government class keeps voters focused on the results of bad government instead of the cause of bad government. In the midterm election, Republicans convinced voters that they were the new good guys – the Democrats had their chance. Two years into a Democrat administration was long enough to know that they couldn’t solve the ills of society. Strangely, voters apparently forgot that Republicans were bad guys just two years ago when Barack Obama convinced them that hope, belief, and warm, fuzzy feelings could change America for the better. So, we replaced the Republican that believed government could solve all problems with the Democrat who believes government can solve all problems.
In professional wrestling, if the good guys won all the time, nobody would stay interested. When the bad guys get a little bit ahead, it creates dramatic suspense by anticipating the good-guy comeback that everyone knows is coming. Regardless of how one views Republicans and Democrats, as either good or bad, when the other party wins, the suspense in anticipation of revenge keeps the audience interested, and distracted.
Government is the problem. Actually, the problem is that nobody realizes that government is the problem because they’re too focused on the problems created by government.
Voting for candidates from the two major parties will never solve the problem. As members of the governing class, they will only act in their own self-interest, which is to preserve the government class by convincing voters that somehow government can clean up the problems of government. But government can’t solve the problems created by government, because I can’t recall one government that ever voted itself out of existence.
Roger Prather is the Communications Coordinator for the Massachusetts Tenth Amendment Center.