Once upon a time there was a republic.
Like many republics before and since, it was immensely proud that it was not ruled by a king. Long ago, in fact, the citizens of the republic had overthrown a king and sent him packing.
The republic, like many other republics before and since, was ruled instead by oligarchs. They had all the money. They controlled the important institutions. All the paths of success ran through the cultivation of their favor.
But the people were unhappy with this arrangement. For they suspected that, though the republic was governed in a manner that was perhaps minimally acceptable by the standards of history and other nations, it was still not governed as well as it should be.
So the people, over time, grew unhappy with the oligarchs. Like the masses everywhere, they were accustomed to their lot, patient, and stoical. But year by year, their frustrations accumulated. Eventually, they became genuinely angry with their rulers.
Why? Because everything wrong with their society could be laid at their door. They were the ones in charge, after all.
The people demanded reform.
But the oligarchs had a brilliant idea. They gave the people a choice. They started holding elections, in which the people were allowed to choose between rival factions of servants of the oligarchs.
Each faction advertised different principles . So the people were allowed to choose between Freedom and Equality, between Stability and Progress, between God and Reason, between Tradition and Fairness, between Solidarity and Individualism, between Diversity and Unity, between Gasoline and Diesel, and even between Alternating and Direct Current.
Much hinged upon these choices. Members of the public defined their attitude towards the world and their personal moral code by which faction they voted for.
For a while, the masses were happy. They called it Democracy.
But eventually, the masses become unhappy again. Things were not working out. The country was still not well governed.
But this time, when they complained, the oligarchs had a ready reply:
“You elected the government, not us. If you don’t like it, vote to change it.”
And the people didn’t know what to say to this, because it was true.
So they did vote to change their government.
But they still weren’t happy.
So they voted to change it again.
But no matter how many times they voted, they were still not satisfied, and their frustration accumulated.
The people became convinced that if only they could elect just the right faction, under just the right charismatic leader, then everything would be fine.
They became convinced that all the country’s problems were due to the wrong faction getting elected.
They bitterly catalogued the flaws of whatever faction they did not vote for. Sometimes, they even catalogued the failure of their own faction to stick to its principles.
If only the Red Flag Faction could truly rule, and have all the government at its command, including the courts! Then everything would be well.
No! If only the Blue Flag Faction…
The people exhausted themselves comparing and trying out the different factions. They grew divided amongst themselves, bitter toward their fellow citizens, and thus unable to unite against the oligarchs.
High above, in their counting houses and their mansions, the oligarchs looked down with bemused detachment. Occasionally, when they grew bored with the ownership of professional sporting franchises, they would toy with one faction or another. But for the most part, they just let matters play out, confident in outcomes acceptable to their interests.
The factions were, after all, composed of their own servants, trained in institutions they controlled, and vetted by a long and arduous process.
Nobody bothered the oligarchs, because nothing was ever their fault. Everything bad that happened, after all, was due to the wrong faction getting elected.
Or, some men thought wise sometimes said, the failure of both factions to work together for the good of the country.
So the people mostly left the oligarchs alone. Occasionally, one faction or another made noises about them, but little came of it. The factions mostly fought each other, and in this way the republic’s finite political energies were consumed. The people and their spokesmen exhausted themselves, and political stability was achieved.
I trust I don’t have to continue with this story. My point is that democracy, for all its virtues, is a spectacularly efficient machine for the diffusion of responsibility into thin air. Unlike in more authoritarian political systems, nobody is truly accountable. Everything is always the other side’s fault. The one issue that’s never on the ballot is whether the unified governing establishment that underlies both parties should continue to govern.
My point here is not the cliché—which is false anyway—that there’s no difference between the two parties. There isn’t a lot, but there’s enough. But partisan differences themselves are a trap, because they serve largely to factionalize society so that it’s hopelessly divided and unable to resist a unified establishment whose interests are at variance with those of the public.
Most of what’s wrong with this country, starting with my own issue, free trade, is the product of a consensus that both parties share. Or, worse, they choose to abdicate responsibility on these issues entirely, leaving them to be settled by an oligarchy that is increasingly insulated from democratic accountability and free to play by its own rules.
Fixing these problems, in the long run, will mean a lot more than whether Obama or Romney wins this election. I’m not endorsing anybody this time around.
Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Ian Fletcher, is Senior Economist of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a nationwide grass-roots organization dedicated to fixing America’s trade policies and comprising representatives from business, agriculture, and labor. He was previously Research Fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a Washington think tank, and before that, an economist in private practice serving mainly hedge funds and private equity firms. Educated at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, he lives in San Francisco. He is the author of Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why.