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Chris Murphy’s Wrong: Politics Can’t Solve All Our Problems

Senator Chris Murphy (D. Conn.) needs his head examined. Jubilant at the defeat of the already diluted Republican health-care bill, he sent out the following tweet this morning:

I can hardly imagine a more shallow understanding of human happiness. Ponder a few examples of how this process, as “last night proved,” might work in Senator Murphy’s mind:

Problem: John worries that his marriage is failing.
Solution: Vote down the Republican health-care bill.
Mechanism: [omitted]Outcome: John is now happy.

Problem: Cindy feels alone in a new city, away from her family and friends.
Solution: Pass new gun-control legislation.
Mechanism: [omitted]Outcome: Cindy has become content.

Problem: Thomas struggles to maintain his faith after the death of his sister.
Solution: Comprehensive immigration reform.
Mechanism: [omitted]Outcome: Thomas has achieved Nirvana.

Political action can, of course, improve lives. It can make people safer, freer, and wealthier. I even believe that a well-ordered city is conducive to a well-ordered soul. But while safety, freedom, and prosperity can all help people to pursue their own happiness, they provide no “cure” in themselves. Through policy, the government might make you financially secure enough to follow your dreams — or to waste away an unfulfilling life. The choice is up to you.

But it’s not only up to you. Everyone need friends, families, and communities to bring joy, meaning, and order to their lives. For many, a relationship with God is also essential. Far beyond our material conditions, we need to be needed, to contribute to something larger than ourselves. We need a lot, and very little of it can be provided by the state or purchased with money.

There have always been plenty of intellectuals and other utopians who ignore this basic truth, of course. In doing so, they often give in to the totalitarian temptation: the belief that, with enough political control, happiness can be assured for everyone — in other words, exactly what Senator Murphy tweeted.

It is called a totalitarian ‘temptation’ for a reason, after all.

People who believe that all problems can be “cured by political action” will come to support more and more invasive political actions as their initial programs inevitably fail to create heaven on earth. There will always be enemies and resisters to blame and punish for the “incompleteness” of the policy agenda or the revolution. Rights, interests, and traditions will prove stubborn, and have to be trampled.

This path to totalitarianism is not only imposed from above. It also draws on popular support, reaching out to the alienated masses and offering membership, friends, family, and a larger purpose in the form of political community.

That is the contention of the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet’s 1953 classic, The Quest for Community. When real community falters, Nisbet argues, people are left with a void. Consequently, they are all too willing to turn to the state in order to replace their weakened forms of familial and communal association. Under the banner of “political action,” one could say, people are led to flee their “anxiety or sadness or fear” by attaching themselves to the power and mission of the state. It is exactly this humanitarian mission, urged on by the people themselves, that allows the state to gain complete control over isolated individuals, left unprotected without the old, non-political forms of association.

Both the vision of humanity as married to the state and the promise of national community are present in American politics. It is called a totalitarian “temptation” for a reason, after all.

On the left, one only has to look to the “Life of Julia” — the virtual character that the Obama reelection campaign created and defined by her beneficial attachment to the state — or the 2012 Democratic National Convention, in which it was announced that “Government is the only thing that we all belong to.” On the right, it is not hard to see in some of President Trump’s appeals a sort of national community or totalizing state capable of solving all problems and making American great again.

Unfortunately, Senator Murphy’s belief in the cleansing, salvific power of the state is not at all foreign to American politics — not even close. And its persistence remains the single best reason to heed Ronald Reagan’s famous words:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.

— Elliot Kaufman is an editorial intern at National Review.

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