Vaclav Havel on Intellectuals in Politics

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Project Syndicate reprints Havel's remarks in 1998 on a question that has some relevance for US politics just now: Do intellectuals belong in politics? Yes, he says, we need them--but they have to be of the right kind.

I am convinced that the purpose of politics does not consist in fulfilling short-term wishes. A politician should also seek to win people over to his own ideas, even when unpopular. Politics must entail convincing voters that the politician recognizes or comprehends some things better than they do, and that it is for this reason that they should vote for him. People can thus delegate to a politician certain issues that - for a variety of reasons - they do not sense themselves, or do not want to worry about, but which someone has to address on their behalf.

Of course, all seducers of the masses, potential tyrants, or fanatics, have used this argument to make their case; the communists did the same when they declared themselves the most enlightened segment of the population, and, by virtue of this alleged enlightenment, arrogated to themselves the right to rule arbitrarily.

The true art of politics is the art of winning people's support for a good cause, even when the pursuit of that cause may interfere with their particular momentary interests. This should happen without impeding any of the many ways in which we can check that the objective is a good cause, thereby ensuring that trusting citizens are not led to serve a lie and suffer disaster as a consequence, in an illusory search for future prosperity.

A demanding standard--one that he lived up to, but few others ever have.

See also Anne Applebaum's fine tribute to one of the great men of the 20th century.


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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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