On Getting Out of the Political Business

Professor Vermeule raises a very interesting question when he asks whether politics is an optional game. I will do my best to respond briefly to his points without sidetracking the conversation too far from its focus on the administrative state.

First, I should clarify terms. Being subject to the political power of the state is not optional. The state will apply its political power to me regardless of what I do. I cannot opt out of that. However, whether I participate in the political process–specifically, the democratic process that decides who will wield the power of the state–is optional. This means that in this respect, I must decide what I should do.

Now, if the reader will forgive my use of philosophical terminology, we can examine this question from a either a consequentialist or a deontological perspective. Let’s take the consequentialist perspective first.

With regard to the political participation game, Professor Vermeule points out that “if someone with values or beliefs or interests antithetical to yours decides to play, you have to play too, or lose.” This is true. But it is a significant observation only under the assumption that if one played there would be a non-negligible possibility of winning. In my opinion, one who believes that peaceful individuals should be free to lead their lives as they see fit has no possibility of winning when the game being played is the struggle for political power. Space is too limited in this format for me to expound on this point at length, so let me just refer the reader to Chapter 10 of The Road to Serfdom entitled Why the Worst Get on Top, or perhaps merely gesture toward the current presidential campaign. In such a case, I believe it is better to work outside the system rather than toil in futility within it.

Now for the deontological perspective. Sometimes one is called upon to do the right thing regardless of consequences. If I am conscripted into a one hundred person firing squad that is going to execute an innocent person, my pulling the trigger or not can have no effect on the outcome. That does not mean that I should pull the trigger, even if everyone else does. If I am told that there is an organization that will extract and spend 30% of the wealth of the United States no matter what I do, and if I am offered a choice as to whether that wealth should be spent building a wall along the Mexican border or throwing sand in the gears of economic growth, the right thing to do may simply be not to participate in the system.

In our business ethics courses at Georgetown, we sometimes explore situations in the global marketplace in which there is no way to compete successfully without engaging in unethical or corrupt practices. Our highly motivated and competitive students often find it difficult to accept that in such situations the right thing to do is to go out of business. I find myself in a similar situation when contemplating participating in the political system.

My apologies for taking the conversation so far from the question of reining in the administrative state.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Philip Wallach describes rising skepticism about the administrative state in our representative government. But what can be done about it? Populists promise to return the government to the people, and yet effective government in the modern world to a high degree requires technical expertise. Libertarians have a telling diagnosis of the problem, says Wallach, but few workable solutions. If Congress is to regain control of the sprawling administrative state, it will have to demonstrate that it is willing and able to govern instead.

Response Essays

  • Clyde Wayne Crews finds much to agree with in Philip Wallach’s diagnosis of administrative sprawl. But then he asks: Why not rein it in? Other countries have done so, and we have even taken some important and bipartisan steps in that direction before. The bureaucratic pretense of expertise has never been so clearly exposed as it is today, and we should take the opportunity to improve the regulatory environment before incipient technologies, like autonomous cars and commercial drone transport, are caught in the regulatory web.

  • Adrian Vermeule openly doubts that the administrative state faces a legitimacy crisis. He observes that Congress itself created the administrative state, and that it remains firmly in control of its creature. Moreover, the public appears fairly content with the administrative state that we have, and certainly shows no inclination to scrap the whole thing. Both these observations should count, he suggests, in any consideration of the administrative state’s legitimacy. In short, there is no crisis here, and no radical solutions are warranted.

  • John Hasnas does not think that the administrative state can be reformed. But it can be outpaced. This, he says, offers hope for libertarians, whereas politics does not. The administrative state is inherently slow to adjust to new social developments, and liberty will always exist just a few steps ahead of it.