By Robert Higgs
Eldridge Cleaver famously declared, “You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” Although I did not agree with this sentiment in its original context, it has more definite applicability in regard to what one might think of as “solving political problems.”
Notice, first, that politics consists in the struggle to control the power that allows one party (whether an individual or a group) to impose its preferences on other parties who object to this imposition. Some political struggles involve attempts to make new impositions; others involve attempts to throw off existing, unwanted impositions. Because in our time the state is usually the organization that possesses the greatest coercive power, politics often boils down to a contest over who will control the state and how state authorities will wield their power. Politics, in short, ultimately has to do with the question: who will be master?
When we recognize that political problems always involve this question, we see immediately that they can have no solution short of complete capitulation by the political losers. Unless they concede that others will be their masters, they will continue to struggle, either overtly or covertly. Thus, political problems remain perpetually unresolved in any more than a tactical, short-term way. Losers may appear to have given up, but usually if not always they will continue to harbor a desire to throw off their master or some aspect of the master’s regime and continue to work in some way toward the attainment of that objective.
Of course, wherever more than one way of dealing with an issue exists, there is no necessity of resort to politics. If everyone agrees to let each party act as it wishes without coercive interference, a genuine political solution does exist: abandon politics. Of course, many social thinkers deny the feasibility of this solution as a general matter, however much they may concede that many issues can be handled satisfactorily by following the rule, laissez faire, laissez passer. If no genuine “public goods” exist (as some theorists maintain), however, then complete individual liberty solves every political problem ipso facto. Notice, though, that this “political solution” works only because it rules out genuinely political action entirely.
If one is willing to live and let live, to accept that each party may go its own way and deal with its perceived problems as it prefers, provided only that it allows equal latitude to every other party, then all political problems as such evaporate. The difficulty arises from some parties’ insistence on having their own way, however objectionable that way may be to other parties. To return to Cleaver’s dictum, adding appropriate amendments: You’re either part of the solution (by abandoning participation in politics) or you’re part of the problem (of endless political conflict).
About the author: Robert Higgs
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation.