7. The role of the politician in the libertarian reform

It is usually said that a good politician is one who gets on best with the voters and, therefore, that, in general, politicians merely reap the harvest of existing public opinion. According to this approach, politicians are simply melting pot of the society from which they emerge and, in fact, there is a great deal of truth in this idea.(21) Thus, for example, Goldwater and Reagan, in their respective campaigns for the presidency of the United States, set forth very similar free market ideas. However, one of them, Goldwater, lost the elections because American society in 1964 was imbued with the mythical culture of the Welfare State, whereas Reagan won two elections by absolute majority from 1980 onwards, basically because the centre of gravity of public opinion in the United States had shifted massively toward the moral and theoretical principles of the capitalist system. Therefore, to the extent that it is true that politicians merely reap the harvest of a certain climate of public opinion, the need to take action in respect of intellectuals and those who spread ideas takes on a special relevance in accordance with the recommendations we make in the preceding section, since they are the people who, in the final analysis, guarantee the change of public opinion in the right direction which the politicians tend to follow.

However, the thesis that the politician simply harvests a climate of opinion does not tell the whole truth. We think that, actually, politicians, in spite of the evident restrictions imposed on them by the environment and public opinion, often have significant room for manoeuvre, not only to take action in order to achieve the appropriate reforms, but even to mobilize public opinion in favour of them. We therefore find what is now the classic definition of political activity given by the Spanish politician Cánovas del Castillo to be very appropriate: “politics is the art of bringing about, at each historical moment, the part of the ideal the circumstances make possible” (22) . It should be noted that this definition talks about trying to bring about the greatest amount possible of the ideal and, therefore, in accordance with this concept, a clear sense of libertarian belligerence should be given to all political activity. The cases of Thatcher and Reagan driving the libertarian-conservative revolution of the eighties in the United Kingdom and United States and the case of the Argentinian president Menem who, in spite of winning his elections with a populist message, has carried out a profound free market transformation in the political, social and economic structures of his country, are paradigmatic and demonstrate how much can be done by charismatic politicians who, due to conviction or circumstances, decide to promote free market reforms in their countries.

It is therefore very important to place the greatest number possible of “professional politicians” with a libertarian education and commitment among our public servants. They should know the principles upon which the free market reforms are based and the main consequences, implications and arguments that favour them, so that they become capable of explaining libertarian ideology in a way that can be understood and is attractive to the majority of the citizens. The capacity of a professional politician to explain these principles to the people, making the libertarian project convincing and exciting for the masses, has an incalculable value. From this point of view, it is very useful to classify professional politicians into four large groups, which could be as follows:

First: Professional politicians who are clearly and exclusively pragmatic. These are those who do not know the free market principles or their implications. They neither know nor want to know anything about the libertarian ideology, as their sole interest is to achieve and maintain political power and their personal abilities are sufficient to do this. Unfortunately, this group of ignorant and pragmatic politicians has been, to date, very numerous and comprise many professional politicians, mainly composed of lawyers, teachers, intellectuals or journalists, whose main political experience or skill is their ability to spread unfounded ideas.(23)

Second: Pragmatic politicians who, however, have learnt something about the essential principles and implications of free market theory. These politicians have an intuition and some knowledge of the correct functioning of the processes of social interaction that they have acquired either by education or through the experience of spending a number of years in power. Thanks to this greater knowledge, they are, therefore, at least aware of the damage they do when they sponsor interventionist measures in their societies.

Third: Politicians who are well-educated in free market ideals and who try, at least diffidently, to point their political action in the right direction. This group of professional politicians are imbued with libertarian ideology and do their best to reduce the damage that their activity naturally generates to a minimum, although it is true that, on most occasions, they become disconcerted by the serious difficulties and restrictions of everyday problems and can take little effective action to promote libertarian reforms in practice.(24)

Fourth: Politicians who are familiar with libertarian theory and are able to control the progress of political events towards the final goals. Their main characteristics are: 1) their capacity to formulate libertarian ideology optimistically, in a way that is attractive to the voters en masse; 2) capacity to convince the citizens of the need for the reforms; and 3) capacity to excite the majority of the electorate with their project. This fourth and last group is formed by a handful of exceptional politicians. The nations in which, at some time in history, a “thoroughbred” politician with all these characteristics emerges should consider themselves to be very lucky. This is the case, although not throughout their whole political activity, of Erhard in Germany, Reagan in the United States, Thatcher in England and Vaclav Klaus in Chekoslovakia, among those who have been successful in promoting, developing and culminating important free market reforms, and of Vargas Llosa in Peru and Antonio Martino in Italy, among those who tried and, for one reason or another, were unable to succeed. All of them are a noble example, which any professional politician who wishes to triumph when putting his free market beliefs into practice should follow.(25)

It is obvious that the activities described in the preceding section should place priority on educating and influencing the largest and best qualified group of current or future politicians possible, so that we make them able to be classified in the third and fourth of the groups described above. In order to attain this ambitious goal, the most varied combination possible of ideas and activities should be used, among which the libertarian institutions should play a leading role, above all in connecting the principles of libertarian ethics and theory with their practical application as real political measures that lead in the right direction towards the final goals and are well articulated in political terms and attractive to wide areas of society. The reforms, moreover, should be conceived in such a way that they contain elements that they make them irreversible de facto, since they favour important and very numerous groups of citizens who, having benefited from them, are definitively won over to the free market cause (26). It is, therefore, indispensable to creatively introduce all possible elements that will make the libertarian reforms irreversible.

 

 

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(21) The best theories are useless if not supported by public opinion. They cannot work if not accepted by a majority of the people. Whatever the system of government may be, there cannot be any question of ruling a nation lastingly on the ground of doctrines at variance with public opinion. In the end the philosophy of majority prevails. In the long run there cannot be any such thing as an unpopular system of government. The difference between democracy and despotism does not affect the final outcome.” Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, op. cit., p. 863.

(22) Quoted by Lucas Beltrán in his article “Seis nombres para una visión de Cataluña”, La Vanguardia Española, Barcelona, September 2, 1976, p. 15.

(23) On the origin and role of the professional politician as a diffuser of second-hand ideas, see Max Weber’s classic work Politik als Beruf, Wissenschaft als Beruf, Dunker & Humblot, Berlin-Munich 1926.

(24) This group should also include the politicians who, rightly or wrongly, believe that the political circumstances do not allow them to go any further and await a change in circumstances in order to become politicians belonging to the fourth group, able to drive forward more radical reforms. Whether this is true or whether it is merely an illusion in order to justify their own shortcomings is something which will have to be evaluated in each specific case.

(25) Following the English example, it would be helpful for a committee of libertarian observers, who published their results regularly, to classify the politicians existing at any given moment into one of these four groups, in order to make it clear which of them followed the most contradictory and/or harmful courses of action, while, at the same time, encouraging healthy competition between libertarian politicians to move up the scale of classification, increase their knowledge and try to improve their professional behaviour.

(26) A paradigmatic example of irreversible reform was the privatization of the English council houses that Thatcher’s government sold to their tenants (mostly millions of modest workers), who thus became owners from whom no party, not even belonging to the left, will dare expropriate their property in the future.