folder Filed in Essays, Politics
On Burying the Politician
Meanderings on the Death of John McCain
CJay Engel comment 0 Comments access_time 11 min read

Upon first hearing the news of John McCain’s death, my mind immediately jumped to the words of the great libertarian historian Ralph Raico, dismantling the myth of Winston Churchill:

When, in a very few years, the pundits start to pontificate on the great question: “Who was the Man of the Century?” there is little doubt that they will reach virtually instant consensus. Inevitably, the answer will be: Winston Churchill. Indeed, Professor Harry Jaffa has already informed us that Churchill was not only the Man of the Twentieth Century, but the Man of Many Centuries.

In a way, Churchill as Man of the Century will be appropriate. This has been the century of the State — of the rise and hypertrophic growth of the welfare-warfare state — and Churchill was from first to last a Man of the State, of the welfare state and of the warfare state. War, of course, was his lifelong passion; and, as an admiring historian has written: “Among his other claims to fame, Winston Churchill ranks as one of the founders of the welfare state.” Thus, while Churchill never had a principle he did not in the end betray, this does not mean that there was no slant to his actions, no systematic bias. There was, and that bias was towards lowering the barriers to state power.


Yet, in truth, Churchill never cared a great deal about domestic affairs, even welfarism, except as a means of attaining and keeping office. What he loved was power, and the opportunities power provided to live a life of drama and struggle and endless war.

There is a way of looking at Winston Churchill that is very tempting: that he was a deeply flawed creature, who was summoned at a critical moment to do battle with a uniquely appalling evil, and whose very flaws contributed to a glorious victory — in a way, like Merlin, in C.S. Lewis’s great Christian novel, That Hideous Strength.

Such a judgment would, I believe, be superficial. A candid examination of his career, I suggest, yields a different conclusion: that, when all is said and done, Winston Churchill was a Man of Blood and a politico without principle, whose apotheosis serves to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in politics and history.

Indeed, and as the West has not yet learned her lesson, the century of the state extends beyond the turn of the century, up to the present. And thus, “right-wing” Progressivism, or neoconservatism, embodied by Senator John McCain, lives on as a major component of modern American politics. Every outlet from the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal is in rush to laud the legacy of McCain; and this makes sense, for at the end of the day, McCain was a man of the American State, a dedicated contributor to the power and sophistication of the US Government as an institution that seeks to rule the world.

I also shook my head at Gary Johnson’s immediate response to the death announcement, which was as follows:

This represents a specific variety of contemplation over the death of American politicians that, in my opinion, ought not be engaged in. This variety aims to “put aside politics for the sake of momentary national mourning” or other some-such sentiment.

However, I also want to be clear that the opposite end of the response spectrum, cheering and fireworks [“the Wicked Witch is Dead!”], seems cheap and without intellect– the state complex, of which John McCain was a part, has not been harmed by the death of McCain, and indeed is likely strengthened by it. Today is not a day for the second-rate memeification of death– we can do better to persuade our non-libertarian neighbor. Intellect and reason in the form of reflection are paramount.

Contra these, what the situation calls for is cool-headed statements of fact, independent of the emotional side of mindless patriotism, about John McCain and his role in the advancement of the ever-growing United States Federal Government, as well has his role in the actual violations of life, liberty, and property experienced by individuals both foreign and domestic.

Now, back to Gary Johnson. Is there a better image that reveals the problem woven deeply within “Beltwaytarianism?” What a perfect label for quasi-libertarians, who embarrass themselves in trying to display their respectability to the Washington beltway types. Is “in the game and fighting hard” not vague enough to apply to any national leader over the last 200 years? What does it even mean? Shouldn’t libertarians — or humans– have a better standard of worthiness of praise?

A true libertarian

For Johnson, a “life of dedication to his nation” is per se, without any reference to the meaning or content of dedication to the nation, a praiseworthy thing. But morality does not depend on how dedicated one is, and economic theory teaches us that the object of our dedication does not make praiseworthy the means chosen. What I mean by the latter statement is that McCain allegedly dedicated himself to the good of the nation, but the means chosen– the growth of the spy state, the warfare state, the welfare state, the financially bankrupt state– undermined the nation, but did not benefit it.

The Johnsonite response, which I’ve seen plenty of in libertarian circles this evening, fails to come to terms with the fact that the politician is not in a distinct moral category from any other human being. The things that John McCain has supported, has lobbied for, has dedicated his life in service of, are the very things that the libertarian seeks to overcome. They are the very ethical and economic shortcomings that we fight against.

What is remarkable about Gary Johnson’s response is that the ease with which he could criticize Donald Trump the Candidate for saying Racist Things is the same ease with which he could overlook the systematic and lifelong undermining of morality and freedom that John McCain represents.

Of course, a defender of Johnson, perhaps even Johnson himself, would answer the above with: well, there’s a time for criticism, and it is not right this minute. But when is it? Isn’t it funny how for decades these people can stay quiet about the horrific results of McCainite foreign policy– which include all the myriad cultural, financial, and political ramifications– but then when McCain’s name is making national headlines that’s definitely NOT the time to reflect on the influence of McCain on the nation?

It seems to me that there is never a better time to make it known that John McCain is the epitome, the personification, of what is wrong with the American political class. Statism is a religion such that it cases over morally bankrupt actions as mere “disagreement of policies.” That is, you may not agree with the policies, we are told, but you can still respect the man for fighting for them. But again, this is only a statement that can be gotten away with in American political life. For under the American religion of statism, one merely needs to be a politician on the public dole to have your unethical actions (murder, theft) simply waved away as a simple difference in political opinion.

Politics is the means by which standards of ethics are magically transformed into varying differences of opinion on policy prescriptions, often in light of whatever the public clamors around.

The problem with politics is that it makes men popular who do things that wouldn’t be done in a free and just society. Regardless of the specifics of John McCain’s particular flavor of statism, the most frustrating thing for me is that there is this habit engrained in the minds of most Americans (due of course to the religious nature of American politics) that politicians are to be judged by different standards than private, Main Street citizens. They allegedly warrant a greater layer of admiration or esteem.

The reason people can say John McCain was a good man is because they judge his presence in politics based on his contributions to the advancement of the United States government’s goals, not by the same ethical standards of a regular private citizen. By adorning the seat of a government official, he has exempted himself from a situation where his actions are judged by ethics and real world consequences. Statism, which is a certain way of interpreting the world, is such that it creates two classes of men, held to two very different standards.

I call balderdash on this one. The idea that individuals, by virtue of their office, that is, by virtue of their systemic exception to the stipulations of property rights, are somehow to be appraised differently is appalling. John McCain was a lifelong American politico, who therefore, and his voting history backs this up clearly, enthusiastically endorsed in all sorts of state-activities that, if done in the private sector would be considered legally and morally heinous– including war, taxes, spending other people’s money, supporting rebel groups and regimes, bailing out the banks with other people’s money, warrantless spying, etc.

As Rothbard wrote:

In fact, it is precisely the function of the State’s ideological minions and allies to explain to the public that the Emperor does indeed have a fine set of clothes. In brief, the ideologists must explain that, while theft by one or more persons or groups is bad and criminal, that when the State engages in such acts, it is not theft but the legitimate and even sanctified act called “taxation.” The ideologists must explain that murder by one or more persons or groups is bad and must be punished, but that when the State kills it is not murder but an exalted act known as “war” or “repression of internal subversion.”

They must explain that while kidnapping or slavery is bad and must be outlawed when done by private individuals or groups, that when the State commits such acts it is not kidnapping or slavery but “conscription” — an act necessary to the public weal and even to the requirements of morality itself. The function of the statist ideologists is to weave the false set of Emperor’s clothes, to convince the public of a massive double standard: that when the State commits the gravest of high crimes it is really not doing so, but doing something else that is necessary, proper, vital, and even — in former ages — by divine command. The age-old success of the ideologists of the State is perhaps the most gigantic hoax in the history of mankind.

But, the objection might be, that’s just part of the system. Herein lies the problem: we have a system that might allegedly be at fault, but no human beings are ever responsible. But only human beings act; systems, in fact, do not.

John McCain was part of the problem. But he was also a natural result of statism as a way of social life.

The death of John McCain must not be taken as another opportunity to be silent about the nature of the state and the statists that operate it. It is an opportunity to reflect, to be honest, and to look forward to a day when peaceful men, when productive men, when the advocates of moral consistency and uprightness are considered to be the strength of communities; not tax-funded professional politicians that seek to manage the world from their offices in DC.