Benjamin Ginsberg


On his book The American Lie: Government by the People and Other Political Fables

Cover Interview of December 05, 2008


Americans are taught to equate political participation with personal empowerment and individual freedom.  Yet, the relationship between politics and freedom is more complex than the civics teachers acknowledge or know.  Whatever its other virtues, popular political participation functions as a source of state power.  James Wilson urged his fellow Constitutional Convention delegates to accept widespread popular participation as the price of raising the “federal pyramid” to a “considerable altitude.”  But, real freedom does not simply mean a formal opportunity to take part in organized political activity.  Real political freedom must include a considerable measure of freedom from politics as well as the freedom to take part in politics.  Freedom implies a measure of personal autonomy, a sphere within which individuals are not followers of movements, causes, candidates or parties and are not subject to policies, initiatives or programs. Nietzsche might have been gazing at Wilson’s pyramid when he cried, “Break the windows and leap to freedom.”

Unfortunately, though, the government and the members of the meddlesome political class, more generally, are seldom content to leave their fellow citizens to their own devices.  Officials and politicians not only want to explain things to their benighted fellows but for better or worse–too often for worse–they seem to suffer from some compulsion to interfere in everyone’s lives.  When not merely engaged in their normal rent-seeking endeavors, a gaggle of officials want to seize homes and turn them over to private developers.  Other politicians and officials want to redistribute incomes for the benefit of their friends and supporters.  Still others endeavor to impose their own moral values on everyone else.  And, of course, there are those who insist upon sending other peoples’ children to die on distant shores for reasons that are usually difficult to explain.

The political class can and should continually be subjected to embarrassment, ridicule and harassment.  Not only does constant pressure keep the politicians and officials uncertain and off balance, but the exercise reminds the citizenry of the clay feet of their erstwhile idols.  This, in turn, helps individuals maintain some critical distance from the state and its rulers and preserve at least a measure of inner freedom. This effort should be understood as defensive politics, an attempt to maintain individual autonomy and freedom from conventional politics. The first rule of defensive politics is always to be cynically realistic.  When any politician intones, “ask not,” assume he or she has something to hide.

© 2011 Benjamin Ginsberg