Elections and the Illusions of Choice

The political season has unleashed its predictable frenzy, much to delight of people who make a living off it. But to what end? There are only two types of politicians who end up holding office, wrote H.L. Mencken: “first, glorified mob-men who genuinely believe what the mob believes, and secondly, shrewd fellows who are willing to make any sacrifice of conviction and self-respect in order to hold their jobs.”

The about sums it up. The plus side of elections is that sometimes the debates, discussions, candidates and parties raise fundamental questions about what kind of society we want to live in. That’s the best we can hope for.

But there is a downside to all this hullabaloo: It gives the impression that the mere existence of the electoral process gives “we the people” a fundamental choice about the kind of state we want. This is not true. The politicians we elect are veneers or facades. They are bandits, but they do not constitute what is called the state. This goes for just about every developed state in the world for the last 200 years.

The whole election process leads people to believe that the state is in embedded in leaders. Not so. In France, this system ended with the execution of Louis XVI; in Germany, with the ascent of Bismarck; and in Russia, with the Bolshevik Revolution. The personal state died in the U.S. pretty early on, as even Thomas Jefferson discovered when he became president in 1801; he felt himself powerless to do anything.

The modern state lives outside the will of a particular leader or administration. Voting and elections only change the temporary managers, but do not touch the core of the problem.

The first book that saw through the facade was by the great German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer. It is called, appropriately, The State. It was written in 1908, just as the state had begun to entrench itself deeply into the social order — more so than at any point in the previous thousand years. He described the state as the one class that dominates all others, obeying a
different law and thriving off violence against person and property. He sums up this violence in a phrase: the “political means.” He contrasts this with the “economic means,” the essence of which is voluntary human association and trade. (His book came to have an amazing influence through Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, the State.)

Violence? That sounds like the opposite of elections, doesn’t it? Surely, we are exercising our free will in deciding who leads us. The truth is that the people who run for office specialize mostly in what they do best: running and getting elected as an end in itself. The real state is beneath the surface of this public theater. It is the vast army of professional bureaucrats and the mandates they carry out. It is the enforcement apparatus that oversees a gargantuan tax code. It is the Federal Register that is too large to print. It is the central bankers, their staffs, their machinery, their mandate to bail out the state no matter what. It is the hundreds and thousands of agencies that purport to control every aspect of life.

No voter ever approved any of this; no election puts any of this at risk. This is because the state itself is not subject to any plebiscite. Imagine if all the elected officials in the entire country and all those who work in their offices decided not to show up to work for an extended period. What would happen? New bills wouldn’t pass. The media wouldn’t have politics to cover. There would be a periodic scramble over superficial issues like the debt limit. But otherwise, the state would go on just as before. Nothing fundamental would change.

Nor is it the case that any of the elected officials have the power to do serious damage to this system. This goes for the president, too. They can often influence the way the state grows, but they can’t actually fundamentally threaten the apparatus itself. The longer they are in office, the less personal power they realize that they have. The reason is simple. The system is not structured to permit them to dismantle it, even if they wanted to. They are temporary managers of a ruling class, and the members of this class mostly scoff at these people, treating them like actors on a stage that the class itself owns.

The best source to gain a full grasp of the realities of the modern state apparatus is Robert Higgs’ amazing work , Against Leviathan. No contemporary author has so fully documented the vast expanse of the modern leviathan in all its permutations. He sees how welfare and warfare are not opposed to each other, but work together to form the main two activities of the modern state. He sees how central banking works to sustain the system. He understands the ways in which the state serves as a cash cow for every form of interest group, and how it works to trick
the population into believing that the state is doing good for people when it is really wrecking their lives.

Most of all, Higgs gets that the political system that so enraptures the public mind is not owned by us. It is owned and managed by the state itself and for a precise purpose: to perpetuate the idea that we have all chosen the regime that rules us. That is why there is so little difference between the political parties. As Higgs puts it, the U.S. has “two revolving factions of a one-party state farcically masquerade as authentic alternatives, the one specializing in crushing economic freedom and the other concentrating on crushing every other form of freedom.”

After the election is all over — in a grueling 10 months! — and our new managers take their seats, the talking heads will tell us once more: “The system worked.” Yes, it did work in exactly the way they want it to work. Nothing much will change. If you don’t like the results, there is something wrong with you. If you don’t like the rules, taxes, human suffering, wars, inflation, intrusions, confiscations and all the rest of the apparatus, you had better run for office, give to another candidate or otherwise throw yourself into the politics full time!

This is not choice. When we go to the grocery, we face a choice of what to buy. Or we can walk out without buying at all, keeping our money instead. Whatever the result, it is really in our hands. The electoral system is different. The store is the state. The products it offers are produced by the state. There is no real choice, only enough shadings of differences to keep us entertained. And we cannot really walk away. There is “no none of the above” and there is no keeping your own money.

Every once in a while, someone comes along who offers a fundamental challenge to the whole racket and somehow manages to attract public attention and even use the system to urge the dismantling of the system. This is what has happened with the candidacy of Ron Paul, and it is precisely why the media strains so hard to keep from reporting on him or letting others speak out for his views.

The elites are not so concerned that he can be elected. The system is fixed well enough to prevent that outcome. The real threat — and Dr. Paul understands this better than anyone — is the fundamental intellectual challenge that he offers. His book Liberty Defined contains enough radicalism and enough intellectual power to destabilize the entire structure that Oppenheimer and Higgs have so beautifully described.

The ideas in these books are far more powerful than any ballot box. They expose the illusion of choice for what it is and unmask the violence embedded in the state-dominated society, a system that no one chose but has been imposed on the population through propaganda, wars, payoffs and every manner of trickery. If there were a way to re-channel all the human energy that people put into politics into reading and thinking, the state would have finally meet its match.


Jeffrey Tucker

The Daily Reckoning