Quite

Politics is parasitic. Even at its best, it produces no goods of its own; it has only that which it takes from what others produce. For about 200,000 years, human beings produced almost nothing — the per capita economic-output curve is nearly flat from the appearance of the first homo sap. until the appearance of JethroTull and Eli Whitney. We’ve had politicians since before Hammurabi, but we didn’t escape the shadow of famine until a few thousand years later when somebody discovered that the wars fought over dividing up the harvest could be prevented by making that harvest bigger — and then figuring out how to get that done. Politics is a footnote — the inventory in your local Walmart is the headline.

22 comments on “Quite

  1. Well er yes.
    But it was surely humans’ extraordinary violence that made us intelligent in the first place. Trying to work out if the other bloke was going to trade with you or hit you over the head, that sort of thing.

  2. “what he is saying is that American workers have no advantage relative to the Haitians”: what an extraordinary straw man argument. The question is not US vs Haiti but, say, vs China.

    As for the thrust of the writing, isn’t the case of the bleedin’ obvious?

  3. Arguable. Healthcare, roads and other transport systems, post offices, temples, defence. Many ancient irrigation systems that increased agricultural yield were the result of some form of politics. Write 1000 words on whether the Royal Navy were a benefit to trade. Etc.

    Libertarian I am, but it is hard to argue that states have never produced anything. Coal didn’t suddenly become valueless the day it was nationalised. Etc.

  4. The opening of that quote may be the stupidest thing ever said. This is what you get without politics:

    “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

    (Basically what Iab B said.)

  5. Ian B – “Libertarian I am, but it is hard to argue that states have never produced anything. Coal didn’t suddenly become valueless the day it was nationalised. Etc.”

    I would agree that it is unfair to say that states never produced anything, but coal is a poor example. They took a marginally valuable product and turned it into a massive loss marker. State ownership in Britain is synonymous with a loss to the tax payer. So that coal became worse than valueless. We had to pay more to dig it out of the ground than it was worth.

  6. >Coal didn’t suddenly become valueless the day it was nationalised.

    Using an example where the state basically steals an already-existing industry is hardly a good example of the state producing something (especially when, as SMFS says, they then quickly ruined it). I’d say that case pretty much illustrates Williamson’s claim that ‘Politics is parasitic’.

  7. SMFS-

    I used to make that argument, but once when I was going hammer and tongs with a socialist I looked up the statistics, and in fact it isn’t valid; British coal was about as productive as anywhere else and only loss making on paper due to the nationalisation costs, which is still a loss but doesn’t support the argument very well.

    The point really is that straying over from the “state production is inefficient compared to the private sector” argument to the “states are intrinsically incapable of creating value” is dubious at best, similar to the switch from “religions have done some bad things” to “religions have never done anything good ever” position.

    Anyway, you’ve still got roads. There are some nuts on the “libertarian left” who have got to the point of insisting roads are evil because the State built them (in particular Kevin Carson). Road systems are generally overall value positive, regardless of them being state constructed.

  8. What Williamson was claiming is that politics is, in the main, parasitic. He wasn’t claiming that the state never produced anything of value.

  9. “Even at its best, it produces no goods of its own; it has only that which it takes from what others produce.”

  10. It depends upon what sort of state: if one looks at preIslamic Iraq, based on intense irrigated agriculture, the state ensured the maintenance of the canal system with the taxes it levied to everyones benefit. The Arab invaders had a pastoralist mentality, plundered what they could from the settled farmers and allowed the infrastructure to collapse and with it food production. Regimes in postcolonial Africa have similarly neglected infrastructure to the detriment of economic development.

  11. Politics is the admin department of society. It doesn’t produce anything, but without it the company would grind to a halt as nobody filled up the stationery cupboard, maintained the building, filled in the HR forms and made sure salaries were paid on time.

    The trick is keeping the right balance so the company had a big enough admin department to keep everything ticking over, but not so big it wastes money and everyone else’s time.

  12. IanB, he doesn’t ever use the word ‘state’ in his article. He’s talking about politics. What does politics add that wouldn’t be done anyway? (Sure he’s still overstating things a bit, but he doesn’t say that the state never produces anything of value).

  13. >Politics is the admin department of society. It doesn’t produce anything, but without it the company would grind to a halt as nobody filled up the stationery cupboard, maintained the building, filled in the HR forms and made sure salaries were paid on time.

    Private companies manage to do all that sort of thing by themselves, so I don’t see why this is supposed to be a helpful analogy.

  14. Tredwell, I think you are being a bit pedantic there. “Politics” is the talky bit of the state. There would have been some “politics” involved in, say, those ancient immigration systems. It’s like claiming that “the managers” don’t produce anything, when the company they are part of does.

    I’m a libertarian. I loathe the State. But I don’t think overblown, exaggerated arguments do any good, which is why I sometimes argue against them. Claiming that the State has never done anything of value is over that line, in my opinion.

  15. @Tredwell, those companies also employ people to do it. They are indeed “loss making” in that you could fire them all and make more profit for a few months. After which it would become rather trickier.

  16. >Tredwell, I think you are being a bit pedantic there.

    I agree that the distinction isn’t that clear, but nevertheless it does seem clear that he isn’t endorsing a claim like the one you are attributing to him.

    G, an analogy is supposed to be illuminating, and yours wasn’t, plus it was somewhat question-begging — whether politics does perform any useful function like an admin department does is part of what is being debated.

  17. Certainly politics, as we see it, is a very inefficient way of getting anything done. About 10% of the energy is expended in doing the doing, the other 90% being dissipated in arguing who will be doing the doing. Politics being almost entirely about politicians & only incidentally about doing.

  18. On the other hand, given the mess politicians can create as a by-product of politicking, maybe it’s a blessing. Heaven knows what disasters they could achieve if they really gave their undivided attention.

  19. politics is about being in the right gang. If you are in our gang you get protection and even fed and a share of the loot.
    If you don’t – you don’t.

  20. BiS: And just imagine the chaos which could ensue if we put them in charge of something genuinely productive.

  21. Politics is about setting the priorities of the state. In democracies, politicians attempt to gain power by creating coalitions that encompass the median voter. These policies tempered by the rule of law give us choices on public good provision and redistribution. One is reminded of Clausewitz here.

Leave a Reply

Name and email are required. Your email address will not be published.