A proto-”Politics Makes Us Worse”

Politics does awful, awful things to us–and anyone seeking virtue ought to avoid politics to the greatest extent possible. That’s the thesis my colleague Trevor Burrus and I developed in our short essay, “Politics Makes Us Worse.” And it’s a thesis found in this wonderful passage from Auberon Herbert’s 1908 essay, “Mr. Spencer and the Great Machine.”

We all know that the course which our politicians of both parties will take, even in the near future, the wisest man cannot foresee. We all know that it will probably be a zigzag course; that it will have “sharp curves,” that it may be in self-evident contradiction to its own past; that although there are many honorable and high-minded men in both parties, the interest of the party, as a party, ever tends to be the supreme influence, overriding the scruples of the truer-judging, the wiser and more careful. Why must it be so, as things are today? Because this conflict for power over each other is altogether different in its nature to all other—more or less useful and stimulating—conflicts in which we engage in daily life. As soon as we place unlimited power in the hands of those who govern, the conflict which decides who is to possess the absolute sovereignty over us involves our deepest interests, involves all our rights over ourselves, all our relations to each other, all that we most deeply cherish, all that we have, all that we are in ourselves. It is a conflict of such supreme fateful importance, as we shall presently see in more detail, that once engaged in it we must win, whatever the cost; and we can hardly suffer anything, however great or good in itself, to stand between us and victory. In that conflict affecting all the supreme issues of life, neither you nor I, if we are on different sides, can afford to be beaten.

There is little noble about politics. No matter how grand you think your favored politician is, chances are he’s engaged in exactly what Herbert describes.

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