I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that by people with a great deal more political savvy than I have. Not infrequently the folks I hear that from are people who in fact make their lives in politics, and more particularly the politics that plays out beyond the klieg lights, which is to say where the bulk of the sausage is made. So-and-so is going to happen, so you may as well get the best bargain you can and wait to chip away at the more obnoxious aspects of whatever It is.
That point is valid for many issues at many levels. I mean, other than to the guy who runs the local liquor store, does it really matter that they’re selling wine down at the local big-box grocery store? As nearly as I can tell from the sidelines, a great deal of legislation introduced is driven by grandstanding or someone getting in a particular legislator’s ear. Harry Reid and sundry others are trying, depending on which side one listens to, to ban online gambling except for poker, or to ban all forms of online gambling, or whatever. Does it really matter a damned bit, except to the gambling addicts? Yes, it’s a needless constraint on the inherent human right to do stupid things with one’s money, and any needless constraint on liberty is a precedent for other, future such constraints on liberty, constraints which actually do harm to ordinary people. By making part of the socio-political background noise the assumption that anything which some subset of the legislature doesn’t like can be banned for no reason other than they think it’s (i) good for us, or (ii) good for their pet constituencies, we increase, at some marginal level, the likelihood of future passive acceptance of genuinely egregious intrusions on liberty. Can’t recall off the top of my head who first made the point, but it is in fact correct that it is only seldom that a society loses all its freedom all at once.
However, it’s precisely these drip-drip-drip erosions of liberty that Are Going to Happen, because enough of the unthinking can be mobilized in their support. Yes, you can fight them tooth and nail, every time. But fighting them tooth and nail will burn bridges, use up political capital, and perhaps make the forces of freedom less able in the future to resist something that really is a die-in-the-last-ditch issue. And of course other It’s Going to Happen issues don’t implicate liberty interests at all, like how the governing board of a local water utility district is selected, or whether the local school superintendent is popularly elected or appointed by a board of education. Whether a particular interstate spur is built on one side of a hill versus the other just is not going to make much in the nature of permanent impact beyond the people immediately affected.
Other issues, Big Issues, that Are Going to Happen are different. There are certain measures that once adopted become bells which cannot be un-rung. I’m quite comfortable that not a few votes in Congress for that monstrosity of a health care “reform” act were cast on the assumption of let’s just get it on the books so we can say we supported “fixing the broken system,” and then later we’ll come back and fix all the potholes. Except it’s not going to work that way. Individual mandate or no, the inevitable consequence of requiring insurance companies to insure everyone for everything at any time, and at the same time prohibiting them from pricing adequately for it, will be to destroy the private health insurance industry. Oh sure, the companies may survive, but if they do it will be as de facto public utilities, in which the operations and expenses of government are off-loaded onto non-governmental actors, but the policies and preferences are selected by people inside government. Once you destroy the structures for the private payment of health care insurance you will never re-create them.
Outright nationalization of industries also seems to work very similarly. Once you take them over and run them as branches of the government it’s extraordinarily difficult to reconstitute them as private enterprises. They never seem to regain the ground lost.
And of course we sometimes have the Truly Important occasions on which giving in to what someone else describes as inevitable is nothing short of disastrous. I’d argue that Dear Leader’s take-over of the health care industry was one of those occasions, if only because it will wreck no less than 20% of the national economy, and maybe more. But he’s really not the Exhibit A I was thinking about today.
You see, 80 years ago today, Paul von Hindenburg bowed to the “It’s Gonna Happen” of the National Socialists taking over the Germany government. Oh, to be true there were others in the cabinet as well, non-Nazis, people who could be counted on to contain Adolf Hitler as chancellor, people who could show him how politics worked, how to go along to get along, how not to Upset the Apple Carts of People Who Mattered. The Nazis didn’t have a majority (they never were voted an outright majority in any arguably free election) but they were the largest party, and certainly the loudest. They were unstoppable; they were inevitable; the hour for the redemption of Germany had struck, and this funny-acting Austrian corporal was Going to Happen. The Schleichers, the Papens, the Neuraths, the Brauchitschs, the Schachts . . . they all figured they’d go ahead and work with the man because he was Going to Be Appointed, and anyway once they had him penned up in the Chancellory they could draw his sharpest teeth.
What they didn’t appreciate until it was too late, way too late, was that they weren’t even playing in the same ballpark as Hitler. Silly people, they thought they would absorb and digest him, and spit back out a nice, conforming, squishy-edged politician. So why not go along with something that was Going to Happen? Hitler had no interest at all in becoming a powerful chancellor of the German Republic; wasn’t even mildly curious about it. He wanted to — had announced, years before, his intention to — seize the republic by the throat and strangle it, then erect himself and his movement astride its corpse.
Which is exactly what Hitler went out and did. And all those people, the political sages, the Deep Thinkers, the nudge-nudge insiders, the people who — carefully preserving their airs of jaded weariness at the tumults of the masses and those ignorant sods’ belief that Their Boy was going to be any more than one more pebble in the pond — had assured each other that since it was Going to Happen Anyway, they may as well make the best of it and ride it for what it was worth. Run a Wikipedia search on Kurt von Schleicher (who was instrumental in engineering Hitler’s appointment in the first place) and see how he fared. Or the same on Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht, and see where he ended the war (and what he was doing in November, 1946).
Whenever I hear my friends and acquaintances who Know Better allowing that, well, so-and-so Is Going to Happen, so you may just as well get used to the idea, I want to beat my head against the wall. Because nothing in politics is inevitable. Tyranny is a choice, as is decline, as is prosperity, as is freedom. In the end, nothing at all Is Going to Happen unless it is permitted to happen.
And sometimes, Letting It Happen, or not, makes all the difference in the world, as it did 80 years ago today.
Update (02 Feb 13): Ilya Somin over at the Volokh Conspiracy has a spot-on post on What Happens When Illiberal, Anti-Democratic Forces Take Power Through the Democratic Process. It’s about Egypt, which went to the polls and elected the Muslim Brotherhood to replace Hosni Mubarak, an outcome at which Dear Leader expressed “relief.” Somin excerpts and links to some commentary in Bloomberg by Noah Feldman, identified as a Harvard Law School professor (which alone should alert Gentle Reader to the weight to be attached to it). The money quote:
“If Egypt’s democrats want to avoid becoming another Pakistan, in which democracy is never more than a few shots from military dictatorship, they have just one path available to them: take a deep breath, go home, and let the democratically elected government try to do its job. Mursi and his government may do well or badly. But as long as they are up for re-election in a few years, they will have laid the groundwork for democratic transition.
Patriots of Tahrir, ask yourselves: You may not like Mursi. But would you really rather have the army?
You have to figure that some fellow who landed a job at HLS is pretty keen as a legal mind. Feldman seems to fall on his face pretty hard as an historian, though. Mursi simply decreed himself effectively unlimited power some time ago. Oh sure, he’s promised to surrender it when the time comes. And learned folks like Feldman bite down hook, line, and sinker on that promise. I would point out to the Learned Professor Feldman that the Ermächtigungsgesetz — the Enabling Law — of 1933 was passed by a majority of the Reichstag and came with a built-in sunset clause of 01 April 1937. Maybe the good professor could remind us how that worked out, again?
Feldman’s error is to assume that legitimacy of government has nothing at all to do with what that government does. Over at Instapundit, Reynolds points out, “But those rights [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] are unalienable — incapable of being alienated, that is, bought, sold, or given away — which means that even if you live in a democracy, you haven’t surrendered them to the majority. A majority that wants to take away your unalienable rights isn’t a legitimate government. I’m gratified by how many Egyptians seem to grasp that; it’s more than I expected, though perhaps not as many as it needs to be. It’s clearly more than the Muslim Brotherhood expected, too.”
By the way, Feldman also tips his hand when he presents the Egyptian military as being the worst of all possible outcomes, even measured against the Brotherhood. Is it, one asks, because of the Egyptian military’s actual track record, or is it because it is a military, and in Feldman’s world and lexicon “military” is co-extensive with “the most unspeakably brutal, oppressive, murderous thugs you could possibly imagine to yourself”? He hints at the answer to that question when he starts his article by observing that he hates to agree with “an Egyptian general about anything.” Is it the Egyptian he doesn’t want to agree with, or the general? He obviously has no problem agreeing with the Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood that they ought to be running the joint according to their own visions (see the quoted langauge above; ought the SPD in February, 1933 have taken a deep breath, gone home, and let the new Reichskanzler try to do his job?), so what is the source of the repugnance of this Egyptian general’s opinions?
Feldman must be a perfect fit over at Harvard.