In Praise of Gridlock

I see history as centrally a race and conflict between “social power”—the productive consequence of voluntary interactions among men—and state power. In those eras of history when liberty—social power—has managed to race ahead of state power and control, the country and even mankind have flourished. In those eras when state power has managed to
catch up with or surpass social power, mankind suffers and declines.

Thus writes Murray Rothbard in the preface to his four volume history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty. Too many libertarians focus far too much of their attention on politics and on trying to get more libertarian policies passed and more libertarian candidates elected. They see a multitude of pernicious policies, and naturally enough their reaction is to demand political change to fix those problems. However, politics is rarely kind to libertarians. Although there are occasional advances for liberty in the realm of politics, such as the the rise of freedom of speech and of the press, the abolition of serfdom and slavery, and the fall of communism in Europe, the long term trends seems to be toward ever greater state control.

The reason people’s lives have improved so drastically over the last few centuries lies not in politics but in what Rothbard calls “social power”: all the great advances in science and technology, industrial production, and the gradual accumulation of capital. These developments are of course not independent of political power. If the government is too powerful and too oppressive, it can shut down the productive powers of voluntary interaction and exchange. The people of North Korea, for example, might need some radical political change to get anywhere. But as far as the Western world is concerned, none of our governments are anywhere near as oppressive.

We should not seek our salvation in politics. All we need is for the government not to screw things up too badly. What we need from politics is not change, but stability. As bad as things are in politics right now, they could be a lot worse. As long as the political situation stays tolerable, the voluntary sector will keep improving our lives.

Which is why political gridlock is great. When politicians from different parties manage to block each other and prevent new laws from passing, every liberty-minded person should be cheering. The last thing we want is politicians reaching across the isle to forge some sort of compromise. Whatever bipartisan agreement comes out of that usually tends to be both stupid and evil. I’d rather have politicians from different parties at each others throats (bonus points for major disagreements within a party).

This is why the Obama presidency wasn’t so bad, despite Obama being a pretty bad president. Because the Republicans controlled one or both houses of Congress for most of the Obama presidency and they really didn’t like Obama, they were able to block a lot of bad legislation. Had the Republicans not been such obstructionists, the United States would be in worse shape now. With Trump, we have another really bad president at the helm, and unfortunately the Republicans now control the presidency as well as both houses of Congress. However, Trump is quite controversial within his own party, very unpopular with the mainstream media, hated by the Democrats, and constantly at odds with the “deep state”. So despite disagreeing with Trump on a wide array of policy positions, I’m not too worried about him being president. Trump will not make America great again, he will not drain the swamp, and if he gets around to building his wall, the Mexicans won’t pay for it. But what he does do is make politics more divisive so that bipartisanship becomes more difficult. Another boon of the Trump presidency is to make journalists do their job again: to critically examine and to question the government, rather than just repeating the party line.

So embrace gridlock. Political stagnation is just what we need to get social and economic progress. When politicians keep each other in check, the productive members of society are free to quietly go about the myriad tasks that continue to make life better for everyone.

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