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Brief Essay On Politics As A Vocation

Max Weber was a German sociologist writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of his essays is "Politics as a Vocation.” His thoughts apply not just to politicians seeking and holding a government position, but also to journalists and political activists.

In analyzing society, Weber used the concept of the "ideal type," a role that people play, aside from other roles. For example, “student” and “teacher” are ideal types. In economics, “worker,” “entrepreneur,” “landlord,” and “tenant” are ideal types. A teacher may also be a homeowner, a parent, a voter, and a tennis player, but these other roles are set aside in analyzing the role purely as a teacher.

Weber had interesting thoughts on economics as well. For example, he wrote about the “rentier,” the economic role or ideal type of receiving land rent. “He is a man who receives completely unearned income.” Weber stated that “the rentier is dispensable.” Landlords, purely as owners of lands rented out, do not contribute anything to the economy. “He may be the territorial lord of the past or the large landowner and aristocrat of the present who receives ground rent.”

“[The rentier] is a man who receives completely unearned income. [He] is dispensable. He may be the territorial lord of the past or the large landowner and aristocrat of the present who receives ground rent.”
—Max Weber

Of course the person who is a landlord often has other roles, as he is usually also an owner of capital goods, i.e. the buildings and other improvements, and is also an entrepreneur who selects properties to own and tenants to fill the units, and for those roles he is rightfully compensated. Thus the concept of the ideal type is useful in analyzing a specific social and economic role.

Politics in many countries is dominated by lawyers. Entrepreneurs need to attend to their enterprises, a role not easily shifted to agents, and so, being indispensable, an entrepreneur will usually not want to leave his business in order to do politics. Likewise, the ideal type of “doctor” is not dispensable; the doctor will not enter politics unless he sacrifices his medical practice. However, says Weber, “it easier for the lawyer to be dispensable.” Therefore, “the lawyer has played an incomparably greater, and often a dominant, role as a professional politician.” Lawyers are also more skilled at understanding and crafting legislation, but they would not dominate unless they could rather easily suspend their legal business.

Weber recognized the domination of special interests in politics. Beneath any philosophical differences among political parties is the financial benefits to party members who obtain government jobs and the economic interests which obtain subsidies. "The management of politics through parties simply means management through interest groups." Voters facilitate the special interests and major parties, because the typical “voter looks for the name of the notable familiar to him. He distrusts the man who is unknown to him.”

Speaking and writing just after the end of World War I, after the Communist Revolution, Weber was not fooled by Soviet propaganda. Despite their claim to have established a workers’ state, Weber saw that the Soviets had kept the same old military and workshop practices. The “Soviets have had to accept again absolutely all the things that Bolshevism had been fighting as bourgeois class institutions.”

Regarding Germany, Weber said that its “parliaments have been impotent.” Having been defeated in World War I, and with the peace treaty that blamed Germany and demanded reparation payments, “the peace shall be discredited, not the war.” Indeed, the Nazis later rose to power on the resentment of the imposed peace treaty. Weber foresaw that in Germany, despite their revolution that overthrew the emperor, “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.”

As to government and politics, Weber cut to the essence. “The decisive means for politics is violence.” The state is a monopoly of what is considered the legitimate use of force. Thus, “he who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers.”

Weber distinguished two views of morality: an ethic of ultimate ends, and an ethic of responsibility. These can be combined, but the politician should aim primarily for responsibility. Government officials commit harm if they only implement an ethic of ultimate ends, such as equalizing wealth. They best serve society with an ethic of responsibility, basing their actions on the likely consequences.

“Only he has a calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”
—Max Weber

Weber concludes his essay with the statement, “Only he has a calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”

© Text Copyright Fred Foldvary, Ph.D. rights reserved.

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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.

Weber, Max. 2004. “Politics as Vocation,” in The Vocation Lectures, edited by David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, translated by Rodney Livingstone. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Lets face it, Max Weber was sort of a downer. On January 28, 1919, he walks into a Munich lecture hall. It was perhaps the height of Germany’s revolutionary moment. Many thought the country was on the brink of communism. Germany could not have been more politically charged. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had been brutally assassinated just two weeks before. Revolution was in the air and, if Weber’s lecture any indication, spurting from everyone’s mouths. A throng of radical students eagerly awaited the words of one of Germany’s most prominent intellectuals. In the opening line, Weber warns the students that his lecture will probably “frustrate” them “in a number of ways” (32). He was surely right. The seething audience sat through a rather technical and abstract lecture, but one also that ends on much more positive, even poetic, note.

To begin with, Weber immediately circumscribes politics to something done exclusively in, with, and in relation to the state—or between states. The state-centrism of politics leads Weber to his famed definition of the state: “Nowadays, in contrast, we must say that the state is the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory—and this idea of ‘territory’ is an essential defining feature” (33). Unfortunately, he never really returns to “territory” in the lecture, but I do want to highlight the words “claim” and “legitimate,” so often drop out of repetitions of this definition. The state successfully upholds a claim as the sole user of legitimate force.

The definition is packed with ambiguity: how this claim is successfully upheld (coercion, expropriation of other force-users, consent building via democratic channels or otherwise? How is legitimate violence defined? Who decides what’s legitimate? On the next page Weber defines the legitimate use of force as that which is “perceived as legitimate.” Thanks dude.

This ambiguity is addressed as the lecture proceeds. The reason Weber situates politics so firmly within the state is linked to his definition of the state. Since the state is defined by its legitimate claim on violence, the state becomes the primary site for struggles over power. Power is essential to Weber’s view of politics, whether used to further particular interests or for the sake of power itself (33-34), but it remains something that people compete for entirely vis-à-vis the state.

So far the lecture cries out for some arguments about legitimacy and Weber, the crowd-pleaser, chimes in that there are three forms of rule: customary or traditional rule (“extending from the mists of time” and based on habit); personalized charismatic rule; and rule based on rationalized legality. These forms of legitimate rule rarely exist in a pure sense and probably co-exist, and he also points out that compliance with all these forms of rule is still based on “hope and fear” (34). His primary concern is charismatic rule, because it is with charismatic rule that the vocation/calling of politics bares deepest implications.

The modern state emerges, he says, through the expropriation of parallel, “private” agents along with their means of violence and administration (financial resources, subjects, etc) likening it to the capitalist expropriation of the means of production. The administrative staff becomes mere overseers separated from the actual material resources of administration. State officials and employees only manage the resources by the will of the (charismatic) executive. Echoing Marx, Weber deems this process “the expropriation of this expropriator of the resources of politics and hence of political power” (38). It is a political expropriation.

But this creates a situation, which Weber details methodically, of the state becoming a kind of bureaucratic piñata of bounty for the distribution of its largesse to politicians through patronage. Increasing bureaucratization somewhat dulls this tendency by creating a trained professional class, a group of technocrats who manage impartially. But this stratum of professionals evacuates power from politics, leaving it to the whims of party machines and political bosses or entrepreneurs (69) who perpetuate a spoils system—Weber cites Tammany Hall as the archetype of this corruption. These machines, too, depend on charismatic leaders.

And here Weber turns, then, to the three qualities that make an ideal politician: passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion (76). Politicians need to have a sense of “cause,” a passion, but that cause needs to be linked to a sense of responsibility toward that cause as the “decisive guiding light of action” (77). But all this needs to measured by a sense of proportion, a cool-headedness, and “a distance from people and things” (77). “And yet if politics is to be an authentic human activity and not just a frivolous intellectual game, commitment to it must be born of passion and be nourished by it” (77).

The final points Weber explores is the ethics of politics. With the state in mind, he writes: “Can the ethical demands made on politics really be quite indifferent to the fact that politics operates with a highly specific means, namely, power, behind which violence lies concealed?” (80-81). Weber claims that the two bases of ethical action in politics boil down to an “ethics of conviction” or an “ethics of responsibility” (83). The one based on absolute, almost religious-faith kind of convictions by whatever means necessary, whatever the consequences; the latter is based on an acknowledgement of human frailty and failings, which require a measured consideration of possible consequences. Weber is making a quite explicit jab at socialist revolutionaries of his day.

But the two ethics can and should work in tandem: “In this sense an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complimentary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics’.” Put crudely, take a stand, even a principled one, but only do so with one eye on the potential consequences of that stand, do so while feeling and acknowledging the responsibility of the stand.

Bringing the lecture to a close, Weber turns poetic, even quoting a sonnet from Shakespeare, and beautifully defines politics: “Politics means a slow, powerful drilling through hard boards, with a mixture of passion and a sense of proportion. It is absolutely true, and an entire historical experience confirms it, that what is possible could never have been achieved unless people had tried again and again to achieve the impossible in this world” (93).

Warning the revolution will not turn out well, whomever the victory, Weber warns the audience of a coming “polar night of icy darkness and harshness” (93). Hopes will collapse and politics will fail, but the true person with a vocation/calling for politics is s/he who cries out, “Nevertheless! despite everything” (94).


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