Barnyard Politics

Column by Paul Bonneau.

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Humans have a strange inclination to build their fundamental political beliefs and institutions on a foundation of lies and fantasies. One would think something so important should have a better connection to reality! Some of these lies and fantasies are: democracy, the republic, representative government, constitutions, government "help," and even rights.

The problem with building on poor or no foundations is that the building eventually collapses around you, as we are seeing today, with our empire of debt. We will soon be wondering--if we still have the luxury of time to think about it--why we imagined such foundations were adequate.

I like the power of simple barnyard analogies to undermine these ridiculous premises that we sometimes erroneously start with. Nothing could approach the comment about democracy, as "two wolves and a sheep, voting about what to have for dinner." It describes democracy perfectly. In one sentence it seriously undermines the democracy meme in the brains of those who still hold it, and starts them on the long road of questioning premises. We can hope, with some luck, to find other analogies that can approach this one in power.

For "representative government," one could say for example that it is "a wolf telling a herd of sheep he will take care of them if they let him into their pen." That's pretty good, but misses completely, demonstrating the impossibility of representation. Another example might be, "a pig telling a fox and a hen that he will provide them the dinner they want"--the point being that the pig doesn't give a rat's ass what either want, and that the hen and fox wanting radically different things for dinner. In fact, the fox wants to eat the hen. Our so-called "representatives" tell us they can represent both the gun lovers and the gun haters in their district, or both the conservatives and liberals, or those who produce and those who only consume. Of course, this is physically impossible. The reality is that they represent only themselves and the cronies who got them into power. The people are represented only to the extent their interests align with those of the representative and his cronies. One cannot simultaneously represent opposites. "Representative government" is a complete fraud.

No one could eviscerate constitutions better than the somewhat verbose Spooner, but I wonder what simple barnyard analogy we can make for them? Perhaps, "a wolf telling a herd of sheep that this paper the wolves have in their possession reduces their eating of sheep to reasonable limits, as interpreted by three special wolves"? Can somebody think of another?

Of course "the republic" is a reaction against one ridiculous thing (democracy), but that does not prevent it from being equally ridiculous--since it depends on ridiculous things itself, the two foregoing items (constitutions and representative government). However, I am at a loss for a barnyard analogy directly attacking it. In my own personal experience, republican government comes off looking pretty poor compared to direct democracy (in the form of the initiative), at least in Oregon. For example, regulatory takings were made illegal without just compensation, via initiative--until the legislature whittled that down a bit. And civil forfeiture was also made illegal via initiative. I don't think the people's efforts in lawmaking look that bad in comparison with the legislature's; and there is a lot less of it, which is a good thing. Maybe that aristocrat Montesquieu's notions against direct democracy, where the founders got their ideas about it, themselves need some critical review.

"Government 'help'," hmmm, what can we do with that? "Government help is a farmer feeding slop to pigs for their own good--until it's time to butcher the pigs"?

How about basing our institutions and our opinions on reality? Now, that would be something new, wouldn't it? We could start with notions like, "all people work in their own self interest"--even politicians and bureaucrats. A corollary of that might be "people adjust their behavior to take the easiest path." And another, "power corrupts," along with, "the worst get on top." How about, "tax dollars are the easiest dollars to spend"? Here's one: "for most people, principles go out the door at the first sign of inconvenience." Here is another: "there are no rights, but only will." And another: "taxes are theft." And another: "laws are based on, and depend on, violence." And another: "people naturally care to a great extent, what their fellows think of them."

The trick is to simply let people work out on their own how these realities can be adjusted to and lived with. It doesn't take a ruling class to do that. For example, there is nothing wrong with self interest, as Adam Smith noted: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." When people come to understand that their self interest lies in working with their neighbors, and not in screwing them over, self interest (along with reputation) will become an even stronger positive force in society than it already is.

It's time to stop building on sand . . . .

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Paul Bonneau's picture
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Glen Allport's picture

Great column, Paul. Those short, catchy, obviously-true yet hugely subversive memes are powerful tools against the evils of the matrix. You've provided a nice little collection here and probably interested others in creating and disseminating their own new ones. Very nice!