Nature of the Politician

by Don Boudreaux on January 29, 2008

in Politics

Here’s a letter that I sent this morning to the New York Times:

To the Editor:

The headline you give to today’s eight letters discussing this year’s presidential campaign is “The Tug of War for America’s Heart” (Letters, January 29).

Behind all the soaring (if vacuous) rhetoric, all the shamelessly Janus-faced pandering, and all the sleazy campaign tactics lies one motive: each candidate’s lust for power, fame, and the tawdry glory that comes with high political office.  Make no mistake: while pretending to tug for my heart, these candidates really are tugging for my freedoms and my wallet.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

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{ 39 comments }

Per Kurowski January 29, 2008 at 9:14 am

Don Boudreaux: “these candidates really are tugging for my freedoms and my wallet”

Well if you are so sure of that why do you give them credit…your wallet should do!

Now in my country after reading a letter such as Don’s we would scratch our heads and say “Ok you’re right, but how do you eat it?”

I must say I get nervous when I see University professors spell out so much deep distrust in the system they are themselves a part of and sounding more like those who in previous epochs were confined to express their voice at a Speaker’s Corner in London.

Randy January 29, 2008 at 9:30 am

Funny that you say it makes you nervous, PK, because the feeling I get is hope.

Randy January 29, 2008 at 9:32 am

Interesting also that you think of university professors as part of the system. I'd say that in most cases you would be absolutely right.

Ryan January 29, 2008 at 9:37 am

Well put Dr. Boudreaux. You're my favorite newspaper letter writer…just so you know.

tw January 29, 2008 at 9:54 am

As a comedic aside to the political horse race, in a previous post I mentioned how, in 1992, former President Bush received the endorsement of professional wrestler Ric Flair, who campaigned for Bush across North Carolina.

Well, the 16-time world champion Flair is in this year's race…campaigning for Mike Huckabee, as this article states:
http://www.aikenstandard.com/2007redesign/news/290794385822952.php

Yes, these candidates all want the power of the presidency…but you've got to admit that some of them are going about it in comical ways. Huckabee has a professional wrestler stumping for him throughout the South, while his answer to every question about the border involves Chuck Norris. I shudder to think whom he's going to trot out for Super Tuesday.

Per Kurowski January 29, 2008 at 10:05 am

Funny that you say it makes you nervous, PK, because the feeling I get is hope.
Posted by: Randy | Jan 29, 2008 9:30:51 AM

After your comment I read it again. This is a famous Herr Professor of a famous University of yours. Please indicate me where in this statement do you find a glimpse of hope or something that gives a clue about what to do. To me it reads just as another “humans are bad – the last one please turn off the light”

That it could be a worthy act of sincerity by a professor to call out the bluff o the politicians? Yes, but not leaving it at that!

indiana jim January 29, 2008 at 10:14 am

A friend suggested to me last weekend that individual liberty in our nation would be better protected if, among others, people receiving significant government subsidies and those working for the government were not allowed to vote. Although the academy has some with the common sense to be concerned about individual liberty (like Boudreaux), the vast majority do not. So although my friend's suggestion if implemented would mean that I would not be able to vote (because I too am a university professor), I think my friend is spot on.

BDG123 January 29, 2008 at 10:28 am

Well,
Isn't that refreshing. I actually saw a psychologist on C-SPAN once talk about the incredible ego of FDR. What person needs to run four terms for President because he is either so delusioned with power or the belief only he can lead the country?

Randy January 29, 2008 at 10:31 am

PK,

"where in this statement do you find a glimpse of hope?"

I think the biggest problem in this country right now is that people have faith in government. Not a rational belief in the necessity of an organization to maintain order, but a religious faith that government can do for them what god wasn't able to do. I also think that for the most part the public education system and the universities have been absorbed into this faith. I think we need a reformation. Posts like this give me hope that one is on the way.

Don Boudreaux January 29, 2008 at 10:33 am

Per Kurowski interprets my disdain for politicians as evidence that I believe that "humans are bad." He is mistaken.

I am an optimist about human beings living in societies that are reasonably free of centralized power, superstition, and envy. I marvel daily at how marvelously creative ordinary (and extraordinary) people are in markets — the bagel baker who wakes up in the dead of night to bake bagels for me (even though he doesn't know that I exist); the UPS and FedEx pilots who fly parcels to and fro so that we can get our catalog orders quickly; the mechanical engineers who design machines that produce low-cost buttons, shoes, vision-correction, condoms, DVDs, and countless other modern goodies; the likes of Tolstoy, Twain, Hardy, Fitzgerald, and other authors whose creativity inspires so many; the likes of Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Hayek, Jim Buchanan, Harold Demsetz, Gordon Tullock, and other scholars whose brilliance and hard work improves our understanding of the world.

I cannot see the skyline of Manhattan, San Francisco, Paris, or London without smiling and feeling enormously impressed and happy that millions of people do their respective 'things' in order to make this world of ours so wonderful — not perfect, but wonderful nevertheless.

Per Kurowski January 29, 2008 at 11:25 am

"I think we need a reformation. Posts like this give me hope that one is on the way."

Posted by: Randy | Jan 29, 2008 10:31:57 AM

Absolutely, we all need a reformation, continuously, but you will not get it with posts that help to create a vacuum that could be filled by anything.

And I am sorry if I get through as someone sermoning and who believes he knows better, I am not, but the fact is that I have lived a similar experience first hand and it hurts. The discrediting of the politician discourse most of us used in Venezuela (most probably with even much better reasons than Professor Boudreaux) just opened up a hole that was occupied by a much worse primitivism.

And so never say politicians or anything else does not work without offering a suggestion of how it could work better.

shawn January 29, 2008 at 11:31 am

…funny that you'd see cafe hayek as a vacuum.

Per Kurowski January 29, 2008 at 11:39 am

"…funny that you'd see cafe hayek as a vacuum."
Posted by: shawn | Jan 29, 2008 11:31:58 AM

That I did not say. Frequently Café Hayek does indicate a good alternative filling of the hole, only that the post we here refer to was just the pure digging of a hole.

Bruce January 29, 2008 at 11:43 am

Per Kurowski does bring up a good point in his last post. It brings to mind the saying that "it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness". The criticism of power mad politicians is, in my view, totally warranted, but it is still only cursing the darkness.

What then are the solutions? Personally, I agree with the man (I think it might have been Bill Buckley) who said he'd sooner trust the running of the country to the first 535 names in the phone book than to Congress. Since that is not very likely, I think the next best solution to the problem is threefold. First, impose strict term limits on politicians. Perhaps 2 terms in the House, one in the Senate and one as President. Second, replace the current income tax code – which I consider to be the root of all political evil – with a tax code that has two basic features:

1. it exists only to raise revenues (as opposed to influence behavior)
2. it is universally applied

Third, pass a zero baseline balanced budget amendment which requires a two thirds vote to override in any one year.

If you can't eliminate those that lust for power, at least you can limit the power they possess.

Randy January 29, 2008 at 12:56 pm

PK,

The vacuum is a good point, and I think a good case can be made that worship of government filled the vacuum created by a decline in the worship of god. Personally, I'd rather see the vacuum filled by an acceptance of personal responsibility than by the confidence artists who are currently filling the bill. Then again, given that people are generally quite easily conned, I'm probably just dreaming. Hell, the practical thing is probably to side with the cons.

Keith January 29, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Quote from Per Kurowski: "And so never say politicians or anything else does not work without offering a suggestion of how it could work better."

I don't understand why having a better idea would be a prerequiite for pointing out current flaws in the system. But I would propose that pointing out the flaws implies a suggestion that could work better (i.e., stop doing what doesn't work).

baronti January 29, 2008 at 1:02 pm

…citizens and the media embrace the sorry charade of American politics — because they have been thoroughly indoctrinated to do so by the government's "education system"

Compulsory K-12 government schools have been a spectacular success — far beyond the wildest dreams of their statist founders.

Nothing will improve politically until government schools/education-control is abolished root & branch.

Per Kurowski January 29, 2008 at 1:24 pm

“I don't understand why having a better idea would be a prerequiite for pointing out current flaws in the system.”

Posted by: Keith | Jan 29, 2008 1:02:42 PM

Of course you can point out the flaws but this post where university Professor Don Boudreaux says “the shamelessly Janus-faced pandering, and all the sleazy campaign tactics lies one motive: each candidate's lust for power, fame, and the tawdry glory that comes with high political office. Make no mistake: while pretending to tug for my heart, these candidates really are tugging for my freedoms and my wallet” … is less about pointing out flaws and more about pointing out an irreversible fault in the system.

Hans Luftner January 29, 2008 at 5:10 pm

Of course you can point out the flaws but this post where university Professor Don Boudreaux says “[...]” … is less about pointing out flaws and more about pointing out an irreversible fault in the system.

What difference does that make?

Also, I think I have to disagree with the premise of this letter. I don't deny that politicians are really after our wallets, et cetera, but in order to succeed they have to "win the hearts" of the emotionally gullible voter.

I would have mostly objected to the headline's assertion that "America" has a heart. American individuals have hearts. America is just an idea. To say otherwise is just a religion. It's easier to disprove, too, than god-worshipping religions, because you can't claim "it's magic" to excuse the faulty logic.

Per Kurowski January 29, 2008 at 6:34 pm

"… is less about pointing out flaws and more about pointing out an irreversible fault in the system."

What difference does that make?

Posted by: Hans Luftner | Jan 29, 2008 5:10:03 PM

Well for a start in the first case you might actually try to do something to correct the flaw and in the second you are most likely not going to do anything about it and this for all practical purposes seems to me more than a slight difference.

Don Boudreaux January 29, 2008 at 7:18 pm

I agree with Per Kurowski that it is impossible to change the nature of politics. Largely because of this fact I believe it important to point out that the Emperor wears no clothes. So many people seem to think that the Emperor is decked out in grand finery. The more people believe that the Emperor is fully clothed, the more they trust him. I distrust the state, particularly when (as Per admits is always the case) the politicians running it are incurably venal and two-faced and habitually lie about their motives.

FreedomLover January 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm

I think it comes down to 2 kinds of people – those who have something to gain by the force of the state(student aid, welfare, farm subsidy, etc…) and those that don't need it. Those that do need the teat of big government vastly outnumber those of us who don't, so it's all over. Last one alive on planet Earth, don't bother turning off the Sun.

Per Kurowski January 29, 2008 at 9:06 pm

“I agree with Per Kurowski that it is impossible to change the nature of politics

I distrust the state, particularly when (as Per admits is always the case) the politicians running it are incurably venal and two-faced and habitually lie about their motives.”

Posted by: Don Boudreaux | Jan 29, 2008 7:18:32 PM

No! I did not say or even implied any of the above and I believe you are agreeing with yourself; which shows a commendable consistency.

Now, where we are though in perfect agreement is on the importance to “point out that the Emperor wears no clothes” in order to provoke the changes we need.

But when were at calling out the emperors’ nakedness let us also not forget the many professors we have seen hiding behind ridiculous research papers that are never sufficiently questioned by their peers out of misguided solidarity.

FreedomLover January 29, 2008 at 11:12 pm

"The state is as fundamentally corrupt as the body politic."

- FreedomLover, 1/29/2008

Hans Luftner January 30, 2008 at 3:02 am

Well for a start in the first case you might actually try to do something to correct the flaw and in the second you are most likely not going to do anything about it and this for all practical purposes seems to me more than a slight difference.

Okay, I think I understand the distinction you make. You're saying that in the first instance you could correct the problem, but in the second you cannot, that the problem is a fundamental aspect of the system & cannot be isolated from the system. Right?

Please correct me if I misunderstood you, but possibly while curbing your customary snark.

Regardless, I ask again: what difference does it make? Why do you object to Don pointing out an "irreversible fault" without providing an alternative? It seems to me that before you can even appreciate any proposed alternative, you must at least recognize what's wrong with the original system.

For some reason, you seem reluctant to consider even the possibility that the system is fundamentally unworkable, not even willing to consider it enough to reject the idea on its own merits. Instead you create a totally BS criterion for how someone puts forth the idea, then reject it for lacking that criterion.

The discrediting of the politician discourse most of us used in Venezuela (most probably with even much better reasons than Professor Boudreaux) just opened up a hole that was occupied by a much worse primitivism.

Perhaps what happened was that no one discredited the fundamental, irreversible faults of the system, instead leaving an opening for "fixing" it. So you got Chavez. That's what happens when you keep trying to fix what needs to be scrapped. Or perhaps I misunderstand your point.

I don't know how to cure cancer. I know that not only will bloodletting not work, it'll actually make the patient worse off. It makes no sense to insist on only two options: (1) reforming the bloodletting process or (2) refusing to consider whether bloodletting works until we find the cure for cancer.

Do you understand now why I think your objection is silly?

Richard January 30, 2008 at 8:33 am

Don,

You are very good at hammering at the big picture. You are very effective there.

Maybe you should not hammer too much at the political/personal part per se, but more try to explain what you fear and why. After all, reason is what you do best.

Per Kurowski January 30, 2008 at 9:12 am

“Perhaps what happened was that no one discredited the fundamental, irreversible faults of the system, instead leaving an opening for "fixing" it. So you got Chavez. That's what happens when you keep trying to fix what needs to be scrapped.”

Posted by: Hans Luftner | Jan 30, 2008 3:02:22 AM

You most certainly have a good point there (though not really applicable to Venezuela) and clearly, if it is about saying that the system needs to be scrapped, then I would have no problem with that. But read again the Professor’s piece. He is not arguing a system change either he is just talking about sleazy bags out to get him and predicating a “don’t care about it there is nothing to do” attitude. And that to me is sad. Sorry!

By the way why do some allow us to criticize the politicians but not, as the saying goes in Venezuela, “to even touch with a petal of a rose” a professor?

Let me introduce the following motto “Teach you students not to bow to their professors so that they tomorrow they do not bow to sleazy politicians!

Cheers from an everlasting never graduating student.

Randy January 30, 2008 at 3:07 pm

It is sad, PK. The US government has been acting like a nanny – and a real hard core bitch of a nanny at that. I don't think there is much of anything practical that can be done about it – she is too firmly entrenched. But doing everything I can do to make her life a living hell does seem appropriate. Maybe she'll get sick of it and mellow out.

Per Kurowski January 30, 2008 at 3:25 pm

"But doing everything I can do to make her life a living hell does seem appropriate. Maybe she'll get sick of it and mellow out."

Posted by: Randy | Jan 30, 2008 3:07:36 PM

I am a foreigner so it is your call…but good luck… we all need it… since we depend a lot upon where you all go.

jorod January 30, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Each generation needs to be fleeced by the politicians and learn the hard lesson that there is no substitute in life for good, hard working people who respect and trust in one another. Such is human nature.

indiana jim January 31, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Freedomlover wrote:
".. . those who have something to gain by the force of the state(student aid, welfare, farm subsidy, etc…) and those that don't need it. Those that do need the teat of big government vastly outnumber those of us who don't, so it's all over.. . "

Again, this is the logic behind the proposal of my friend that the right to vote be less inclusive (with voting rights being inversely related to the degree to which one is accepting governmental cash flows). Such a proposal is unlikely to gain much traction though; is there any Congressperson who opposes ever more inclusive voting rights?

Randy February 1, 2008 at 7:41 am

Indiana Jim,

Unfortunately, those who profit from government, the political class, are the same people who run it – no big surprise. The idea of an altruistic government is precisely the same as the idea of no government.

indiana jim February 1, 2008 at 10:11 am

Randy,

But it may be a useful point to make. What if professors at public universities, like me, and public school teachers (primary and secondary ed.) had their vote discounted in some fashion (maybe with the weight greater for those with greater private property holdings). Similarly it is conceptually straightforward to envision discounting in an analogous fashion the votes cast by, among others, people receiving payments from government for social security, welfare, medicare, medicaid, those receiving farm subsidies, those working for the federal and state governments, etc.

This proposal is usually tossed around as an all-or-nothing proposal; that is, strip the vote from some. But a more interesting (politically viable?) proposal would be a discount factor that would vary depending upon the extent to which the individual is beholding to the government. Every thing else the same, a person with more private wealth would see his/her vote discounted by a smaller factor because he/she has a greater capacity to resist selling out individual freedoms.

I've never thought of this discounting idea before, but someone else may have already argued for it (or something like it). In any case, it is an attractive idea to me. If it is attractive to enough others it may be influential directly or in some unknown way (it is impossible to predict how the evolution of ideas will play out).

Randy February 1, 2008 at 10:23 am

Jim,

I understand the proposal, but the political class is profiting handsomely from the system as they have created it. The votes are bought, paid for, and producing a magnificent return on investment. Why on earth would they give it up? And there is no one else with enough power to make them give it up.

indiana jim February 1, 2008 at 10:45 am

Randy,

Sometimes tax rates ARE lowered, sometimes government agencies are downsized. True, these things have happened too infrequently, but even though I agree with you that they are not probable, they are at least possible.

"Hope springs eternal." Evolutionary processes do at times give rise to quantum adaptations. I wouldn't bet that a vote discounting system will be implemented any time in the near future, but talking about the idea or derivative of it seems to me worth at least the amount of time it takes to blog about it.

Randy February 1, 2008 at 12:06 pm

Jim,

Fair enough, but is going to take a lot more than a tax cut and increased deficit spending, or the downsizing of one bureau only to increase the size of another. What its going to take is an entire generation to realize that government services do not add value – that they are in fact just confidence schemes run to increase the profits of the political class. In other words, change is highly improbable. But you are a public school teacher, right? That is, you work in the ministry of indoctrination, so you do have some ability to instigate a change. But good luck keeping your job if you stray from the party line.

indiana jim February 1, 2008 at 3:07 pm

Randy,

I am not a public school teacher, I am a tenured professor of economics at a state university. Tenure has allowed me to expose what some refer to as the "unintended consequences" of a wide array of governmental policies (e.g., socialized medicine, social security, minimum wage laws, rent controls, conscription, FDR's New Deal, welfare, public education (vs. vouchers), farm subsidies, transportation subsidies, and so on). So far there has been no occasion in which I have feared losing my job as a result of exercising the academic freedom that tenure protects.

Randy February 1, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Cool. I'll refer back to my first post on this thread. I think that folks like you and Don are the best hope we've got for a reasonably sane future. And your idea isn't bad. It might catch on.

indiana jim February 1, 2008 at 9:47 pm

Randy,

Thanks bro; I really needed a positive comment after the crap I've been dealing with today with a bunch who run a "ministry of indoctrination". If I didn't have tenure, there is little doubt that my voice would have been silenced long ago.

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