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.”
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.”
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.”
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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., (May 11, 1946 — June 5, 2021) was an economist who wrote weekly editorials for Progress.org 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 taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and San Jose State University.
Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public 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 included 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.