Sunday, August 03, 2003

The Culture: Inflationary Politics

When all is said and done, I suspect the campaign to recall California Gov. Gray Davis will have been a waste of time and money. It's not that the case has not been made for booting Davis to the curb, but the entire recall process reveals the true source of California's political problems, and it's not the incumbent governor.

Davis may be the purest form of bottomfeeder to ever win a major political office in the United States. The governor's long political career is noteworthy for its absence of ideological principle and the near-total reliance on personality politics--i.e. negative attacks--to win and hold office. In a perverted way, you have to almost respect Davis' ability to win five statewide elections in a large, diverse state like California, a place one would figure would have awakended long before now to repudiate a political cockroach like Davis.

The larger trend seen in Davis' career and looming recall is what I call "inflationary politics." Like most Objectivists and libertarians, I favor a gold standard in monetary policy. The principle is simple: gold provides an objective control to determine the value of money, thus securing the money supply itself from political manipulation. In America today, of course, we no longer have the gold standard but fiat currency, where the Federal Reserve decides the size of the money supply and the subjective value of the dollar.

In politics, there is a "gold standard" as well: ideology. Ideas are the objective currency of politics. Ideas can be objectively assessed using reason and the branches of philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics, etc.) An idea can ultimately be proved true or false. A political system that is based on ideas can thus flourish even in the face of bad ideas, for they can be disproven and considered by the electorate for what they are.

Modern politics, such as that personified by Gov. Davis, is not idea-based, but personality-based. The currency of personality-based politics is the personal attack, such as calling your opponent a "right-wing extremist." Unlike objective ideas, personality attacks cannot be rationally proven or disproven, since they are inherently arbitrary assertions. How does one disprove that he's an "extremist"? By renouncing his views, of course, and subjecting his judgment to that of the mob. This is precisely the point: win the argument without having to weather fact-based inquiry or debate.

Like fiat currency, personality attacks can be manufactured at will, and their supply can be expanded in times of great need, such as elections. Ideas, on the other hand, require a substantial intellectual investment that politicians--and many voters--disdain as too abstract or complex.

The result of this is inflationary politics: an artificially expanded supply of political personalities without a corresponding increase in ideas. This is not something that one can solely lay at the feet of politicians like Gray Davis--he's only a skilled beneficiary. Ultimately, it is the voters who must look in the mirror and accept their own responsibility for today's political culture.

Of course, that's not something you're likely to hear from Gray Davis or any of the other potential candidates for his job. One key to personality-based politics is blame assessment. If there is a problem, if people are unhappy, then someone must be at fault--someone other than the person himself, that is. Government leaders have perfected the art of using others--largely private businesses--as scapegoats for the misconduct of public officials. For example, Davis will spend much of his recall campaign blaming Republicans, energy companies, and "special interest" groups for his failures as governor.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Almost all politicians, especially regulatory agencies, assign blame as a substitute for intellectual inquiry. Here at CAC, we see that constantly from antitrust regulators, who blame private businesses when "consumers" are made to suffer such indignities as a possible 40-cent increase in the cost of ice cream.

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