Politicians have given us many occasions to be critical of their actions. Politics, like all sausage making, is rarely palatable.
Nevertheless, Aristotle observed that man is by nature a political animal, drawn into association with others in order to satisfy inherently social needs. Politics need not take the form of what Ambrose Bierce calls it in The Devil’s Dictionary: “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”
Of course, thinking about politics clearly and constructively is often made more difficult by the language of the politicians and partisans themselves. Sri Aurobindo, who in his youth embraced Indian nationalism only to abandon politics for the study of philosophy and yoga, observed this in the “shifty language” of the politics of his time:
“that strange language full of Maya and falsities of self-illusion and deliberate delusion of others, which almost immediately turns all true and vivid phrases into a jargon, so that men may fight in a cloud of words without any clear sense of the thing they are battling for.”
We often cry, like Frederic Bastiat’s Utopian, “If only I were one of His Majesty’s Ministers!” Yet when the utopian is granted even the hypothetical possibility of such a position, he realizes how complicated the prospect really is:
I would begin by … by … goodness me, by being highly embarrassed. For when it comes down to it, I would be Minister only because I had a majority; I would have a majority only because I had made myself one and I would have made myself one, honestly at least, only by governing in accordance with their ideas. … Therefore, if I undertook to ensure that my ideas prevailed by thwarting theirs I would no longer have a majority, and if I did not have a majority I would not be one of His Majesty’s Ministers.
The fundamental tension in politics is not one of ideological conflict between parties and factions, although that certainly exists in abundance! Instead, it is found in the way one perceives his or her “enemies” and proceeds to seize the political apparatus to mold society into one’s own purposes. This is the temptation of what Adam Smith calls the “man of system.”Such a politics is an anti-politics and will lead to the destruction of citizens’ own rights and responsibilities.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith contrasts this “man of system” with the “man of public spirit”:
The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.
The man of public spirit is one who is sadly lacking today. The man of public spirit is not a mere partisan politician, but a statesman who is mindful of the diverging interests, values, and communities which the state contains. His politics is not an experimental science but a social art.
The political leaders we need must follow the admonition of the Psalmist: “Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right” (Psalm 106:3). But they must also refrain from placing themselves in the position of judge: “For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’” (Hebrews 10:30).