Is politics neutral?

One assumption that has greatly contributed to the growth of government is the belief that the practice of politics as such is ideologically neutral. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the most abstract level politics concerns the making of non-unanimous collective decisions. To endorse and participate in this practice undermines a strict interpretation of liberalism. Similarly, political democracy is not compatible with liberalism either. Is is therefore not surprising that the objective of classical liberalism/libertarianism is increasingly being recognized as the depoliticization of society.

At a more practical level politics is far from ideologically neutral either. The low probability of affecting the outcome encourages rational individuals to abstain from voting. After being elected to office, politicians are routinely accused of selling out and becoming part of the system. Considering the incentives elected politicians face this should not be surprising, but this aspect of politics is not neutral in terms of ideology either. When a limited government politician sells out, the result is invariably more government. But when a “liberal” politician sells out the result is  generally not less government  but  more opportunism, corporatism, and political calculation.  There are few examples of elected politicians reinventing themselves during office to pursue a less interventionist agenda but there are many examples of elected politicians betraying their small government rhetoric.  The typical conservative response is “this time is different.” There is little recognition among most conservatives and many libertarians that the practice of politics itself is biased towards undermining their goals.

Faced with a system that encourages  irrational behavior and that is biased towards the growth of government the only remaining  response for an advocate of strict liberalism is to sell his vote. Unfortunately, the selling of votes is not permitted. Such an obvious feature of democracy becomes a little more mysterious if one considers that  politicians routinely buy votes by promising certain segments of the population redistribution of taxable income. As Randall Holcombe writes:

While at first one might be uneasy about selling votes, it happens in Congress all the time.  Senators and Representatives will agree to support a bill only if it has some specific special interest benefit added to it, and often special interests pay for that support through campaign contributions or other payments to the legislator.  People take this for granted, as the way politics works.  If it is OK for elected officials to trade or sell their votes, it is not immediately apparent that ordinary citizens should be prevented from selling theirs.

Not voting is not much of a political “strategy.” From an individual perspective not voting is just as ineffective as voting. But there are not many “activities” that convey the core message of classical liberalism as clearly as not endorsing, or participating in, the political process.  When attempts are made to overcome the addiction to politics, more fruitful means to restore individual liberty can be explored.

Further reading:

The calculus of voting
The addiction to politics

Beyond politics