Broder Unwittingly Helps to Expose the Beast

by Don Boudreaux on May 16, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics

I sent this letter a few days ago to the Washington Post.  I truly don’t get the faith that so many people have in politicians and in politics.

The Post‘s dean of political analysts, David Broder, today unwittingly
reveals two malignancies of politics ("The Price of Delay," May 11).
First, politicians are cowards.  Broder notes that dozens of Democratic
Senators "desperately" want their party’s primary race finally to end,
but still refuse publicly to endorse Barack Obama.  Broder quotes
Majority Whip Dick Durbin for an explanation: "They want to avoid hard

Second, successful politicians must behave
duplicitously.  Here’s Broder: "Since McCain effectively cinched his
nomination in February and mostly fell out of the news, he has
accomplished a lot. He has targeted potential constituencies with
appearances and messages tailored for them, knowing that other voters
probably are not paying attention."  Broder casually adds that "Obama
needs to do similar work."

This isn’t leadership; it’s cowardly con-artistry.

Donald J. Boudreaux

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EconStudent May 16, 2008 at 12:16 pm

'Here's Broader: "Since McCain' Should be Broder…

John V May 16, 2008 at 12:40 pm

It's simple. The cheer-leading people doing this, like Broder, are part of the same game. Everything and anything that is at stake simply channels into the myopic partisan political vote. It's all about control. I'm afraid your (our) perspective is willfully ignored.

The perspective you use goes right to the heart of everything political. If observers actually stopped to examine exactly what is going on and internalize it, it would make the whole production that is partisan politics look silly.

The only perspective that is encouraged is to look straight ahead and accept the perceived depth of it all. Because to turn it slightly sideways or move to the side to view it diagonally would expose how flat, thin and empty it all is.

Bret May 16, 2008 at 4:53 pm

So building coalitions of constituents isn't leadership? Why not?

Mesa Econoguy May 16, 2008 at 6:22 pm

Broder is a “journalist,” whatever that is. Strike one. He has spent his pseudo-professional lifetime covering people whose job it is to deceive, conceal, and pander to whomever happens to be within earshot. Strike two.

Very little of what he says or has said over the course of his career is substantive or worth reading. He is the political version of Entertainment Tonight, with less analysis.

Broder has taken a buyout package from the WaPo and will be a freelance contractor. Perhaps he has finally realized that print journalism is dead.

Adam May 17, 2008 at 8:59 am

In fairness, we all have to be at least somewhat deceitful to get by in life, especially at work. Who hasn't pretended to like a colleague, or to enjoy a meeting, or to really want to work on a particular matter, etc. when all they want is to tell whoever it is to drop dead? And people generally try to avoid taking positions that might be unpopular. I don't think it's fair to say these pathologies are particular to those in public life.

Martin Brock May 17, 2008 at 9:43 am


The pathologies aren't unique to politicians, but they are amplified to deafening proportions. I've been fired more than once for opening my mouth too widely, and I've also kept it shut to avoid upsetting the apple cart when I should have opened it. The difference is that I find other jobs, but I'd never get elected dog catcher.

For me, in the relatively free market for my labor, lying is an occasional tactic I use to traverse minefields, but I use it infrequently enough that I don't forget that I'm using it, because honesty really is a good policy, and the mines are often figments of my imagination.

For a professional politician in our system, lying is a way of life. They lie so reflexively that the aren't even aware of it.

vidyohs May 17, 2008 at 9:50 am


The Supremes heard a case filed in Ohio some years back and their ruling was that a politican could not legally be held accountable for his lies.

A politician is free to lie all he/she wishes on any and all subjects and there is no legal recourse to you the public.

If a politicans lips are moving, assume he/she is lying. Simple enough.

Adam May 17, 2008 at 9:53 am

True, Martin, but I wonder if that isn't a function of the size of a politician's audience and electorate. It seems to me that the vast majority of the problems we have with government result from the greatly increased size of the population whose votes a politician needs to get. Congressional districts are much bigger than they were when the republic was founded, and of course there are the same number of senators per state (two) and presidents per country (one).

It's easy to be honest and have a frank discussion in a small, intimate setting and especially when you can speak directly to people: you're the only filter. It also helps if people know you personally, or at least know someone who does and can vouch for the fact that no, you really didn't mean "X" even if it might have sounded like that.

The enormous growth of the electorate means that 99.99% of voters will never shake hands with a presidential candidate, much less get to know him or her. The only filter is the media, which can put whatever spin (and however much emphasis) on a politician's words it likes. Journalists can make Barack Obama sound like a wingnut black liberation fighter or McCain sound like a psychotic war mongerer. I'm not excusing the politicians, but they have to realize that everything they say is a bit like the line in your Miranda rights – anything you say can and will be used against you.

My point is I think we'd have a lot more honest debate and intelligent discussion (and no more inane talk of "gaffes" each time someone opens his or her mouth) if we had much tinier voting units.

Not to mention smaller government, but that's another post…

Martin Brock May 17, 2008 at 11:17 am


True, Martin, but I wonder if that isn't a function of the size of a politician's audience and electorate.

It's a function of the monolithic size of a politician's audience. There is only one audience, because there is only one state. If a Methodist preacher's congregation throws him out, he can try another church, or even become a Baptist, God forbid, but a politician seeks an office in the state, and there is only one state definitively.

When audiences are smaller and have more options, the governors also have more options. That's the market. My boss may lie to me, but his incentives (the forces selecting him) are different. If he's a company man, focused obsessively on climbing the authoritarian ladder in a single organization, he may act much like a statesman, but he does have options. These forces are escapable, so people do escape them, and I therefore find bosses less inclined to lie to me. In fact, I find most bosses this way. It's no so much that politicians lie. It's that only liars get to be politicians. The more honest ones are a flash in the pan and quickly forgotten, like Ron Paul.

Journalists can make Barack Obama sound like a wingnut black liberation fighter or McCain sound like a psychotic war mongerer.

How tough is that? McCain is a war monger. Obama makes slightly friendly noises, on Iraq specifically, for the moment, but he's still a global imperialist. He still wants to project U.S. military power globally. He only wants to project it differently, and he also wants a global welfare state.

I'm not excusing the politicians, but they have to realize that everything they say is a bit like the line in your Miranda rights – anything you say can and will be used against you.

I suppose everything they say should be used against them, since they vie for a monopoly of coercive force, but then I can't trust anything they say as a consequence. That's the conundrum.

My point is I think we'd have a lot more honest debate and intelligent discussion (and no more inane talk of "gaffes" each time someone opens his or her mouth) if we had much tinier voting units.

Again, that's the market. I vote every day at Walmart, and if I don't like the results there, I cast my votes at Target. My problem with some nominal "libertarians" is that often forget that Walmart and Target are governing organizations formed by various statutory rights and obligations, and properly limited by checks and balances, but I much prefer a daily vote in the precinct of my choice to a biannual plebiscite in the precinct I'm assigned, to select someone else to make all of my choices, from a list of mostly unfamiliar names. That ain't democracy.

Not to mention smaller government, but that's another post…

Not smaller government. Smaller central government and less powerful, more checked authorities at every level. It's a mistake to suppose that we limit government effectively simply by limiting the most central organs, but when the most central organs grow to the extent of the Federal government in the U.S., we can err a bit on the side of this mistaken supposition.

Sam Grove May 17, 2008 at 11:55 am

Perhaps it's the winner take all nature of our system. Politicians have to gain support from a diverse public. Perhaps proportional representation would alleviate this somewhat.

When I ran for U.S. congress in a special election in 1987, I followed Nancy Pelosi on the speech circuit, so I got to hear what she said to different groups. She didn't quite lie, actually, but she was able to express her support for groups that are normally at odds politically (I support labor, I support business).

An adept politician refrains from actual lying (in public), they are more like chameleons.

The funny thing is, Pelosi came from Maryland and so did I.

Adam May 17, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Martin, I agree with pretty much everything you said. That *is* the market at work, I just didn't say it explicitly. And my point about making McCain sound like a war monger was independent of whether he actually is – if you prefer, the lens of the media can make him sound like a pacifist.

And the reason I think smaller electoral units lead to smaller government is because it makes it a lot harder to make the cost of individual pieces of spending invisible. No one notices an extra $1 billion in federal spending today because it's a drop in the ocean. But it seems to me that people are much more likely to feel the pain of an extra $1 million in municipal expenditure.

Martin Brock May 17, 2008 at 12:23 pm

… if you prefer, the lens of the media can make him sound like a pacifist.

It's true. When McCain won the New Hampshire primary, exit polls showed that many voters supported him because they perceived him to be the least pro-war candidate, probably because of his personal history and public pronouncements on torture. Yet he was probably the most pro-war candidate on the slate, a close second to Guiliani at least.

We've had guns and butter for eight years. I suppose it's time for "peace with honor" again.

Cato May 17, 2008 at 1:48 pm

The only way to stop politicians from lying is for the public to hold them accountable for their oath to "preserve, protect and defend the constitution". But before that you have to get 95% of the American public and 75% of our public servants to read and understand what the constitution is all about.
Most would be astonished that 90% of legislation that comes out of congress is unconstitutional but pleased that our constitutional republic has become a welfare state.

Martin Brock May 17, 2008 at 6:44 pm

It's a warfare state far more than it's a welfare state.

Cato May 17, 2008 at 7:41 pm


Warfare State?.. when we spend about 4% of the US budget on defense?
Add up medicare, medicaid, farm subs, food stamps, no child left behind, bridges to nowhere, earmarks, cow flatulence studies, welfare, slush funds…I could go on and on.
And now our Democrat candidates are talking about universal healthcare.

Oh yes, we've lost about 4,000 of our brave men in five years, fighting a war that was overwhelmingly sanctioned by the congress and the people. During the same five year period, right here in the US we've lost needlessly over 80,000 lives through murder and over 215,000 lives on our highways.
Warfare state indeed. Please give me a break.

Martin Brock May 17, 2008 at 10:00 pm


Warfare State?.. when we spend about 4% of the US budget on defense?

In 2007, total military expenditures (including weapons R&D and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but excluding related interest on the national debt) was $626.1 billion.

Total Federal expenditures in 2007 were around $2770 billion.

That's around 23%, not 4%. Your 4% figure is a percentage of GDP.

Social Security is a lower expenditure. Social Security and Medicare combined is a higher expenditure, and I want these programs privatized, but if the programs didn't exist, I don't imagine that we'd spend nothing on the elderly. We'd spend it differently, and we could spend it more wisely, but we'd spend it. Other discretionary spending is similar.

Welfare for low income people of working age (what people more typically identify with "welfare state") is a much smaller expenditure. We'd have some of that without a welfare state too.

I don't at all believe that we'd have a global empire with military bases in over a hundred countries and enough nuclear weapons to blow Israel and dozens of other countries off the map without massive Federal expenditures. I wouldn't contribute a dime.

Yes, the 215,000 highway deaths dwarf the dead U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they also dwarf the 3000 people who died on 9/11, so I wonder why we spent a trillion dollars (or more) on these wars. I don't wonder why my parents ate for the last eight years. I'd have arranged that anyway.

Martin Brock May 17, 2008 at 10:41 pm

Excluding medicare, medicaid and farm subs, everything on your list doesn't add up to two percent of the federal budget. Including these programs, the listed programs cost something more than half of military expenditures. I'm happy to be rid of most of them, but if you think they cost more than the military, you don't have a clue.

Food stamps are about a percent of the Federal budget, roughly the same as NASA. You omitted most of the discretionary budget, like spending on interstate highways that do go somewhere, including the ones you use every day.

Colin Keesee May 18, 2008 at 8:27 am

The saddest thing about people who put a lot of faith in politics and politicians are the same ones who say that using economic principles in the public policy debate are simplistic and that economics is just unproven "theory" that has no "relevance to real life." When a very general statement from economics plays out a way that is not identical to the simplified, pedagogical examples that are used in introductory economics courses, the pro government folks gloat at how all economic theories break down as soon as they have to pass the test of performing in the real world.

The pro government, pro regulation people are the ones who rely on very simplistic academic principles that have almost no resemblance to reality. They are the ones who believe that what they are taught in high school civics actually plays out in the manner that they were taught it would. They call themselves realists when they demand more regulation and seem to ignore the fact that in politics, special interest money, favors among legislators, the need to pander to certain voter blocks, the obligation that all law makers feel the obligation to "bring home the bacon" to their districts are ignored. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, people who advocate for regulation or other forms of government controls, seem to think that politicians will cleanly and in good faith, implement and carry out the new laws with out any contamination from all of the aforementioned limitations that face that political process.

When Hillary Clinton was discussing the gas tax holiday, and the fact that economists of all ideological stripes, oppose it, Senator Clinton said that she "does not want to cast her lot with economists." Lou Dobbs routinely dismisses economists as ivory toward elitists, who are out of touch and have opinions that do not matter. In other words, a potential presidential candidate and a leading opinion shaper in the media choose to favor their own gut feelings statements that get votes and rating, and their faith in politicians' ability cleanly implement legislation over the opinions of those who have PhD's in economics, no need to get votes or please other special interest and who, for the most part, try to be as measured, impartial and sober in their policy recommendations as possible.

It is amazing the audacity of people like Clinton and Dobb's to do only totally dismiss actual experts but they up the ante on chutzpah by claiming to be the level headed realists in debates over policy that will influence the standard of living for hundreds of millions of Americans, including million not yet born.

Martin Brock May 18, 2008 at 10:34 am

… people who put a lot of faith in politics and politicians are the same ones who say that using economic principles in the public policy debate are simplistic and that economics is just unproven "theory" that has no "relevance to real life."

I say that central planning fails precisely because economic generalizations are vague, unproven and hardly relevant to real life. The most compelling economic generalizations essentially say this about themselves. Roberts says somewhere in a podcast that economists contribute most by telling politicians what economics can't tell them. The central planners are precisely the politicians who think that economic principles are more useful.

Of course, the Uncertainty Principle is also fundamentally about what Quantum Mechanics cannot tell us, so I'm not demeaning sound Economics here. Sound Physics is no different.

Economics largely describes artificial constructs like rights to property and exchange (axioms of a statutory system), so the Incompleteness Theorem seems a better analogy than the Uncertainty Principle. This theorem says that an axiomatic formal system (Russell's systemization of Peano's Number Theory in Godel's formulation) can pose questions that the axioms of the system don't address, i.e. the language can pose a question whose answer cannot be deduced from the axioms. How remarkable is that really?

The incredible notion is that we can answer any question deductively beginning only from a few general principles. Sound economics teaches us, empirically, that we can't. That's why I can't take Rothbard's deductivist approach to "liberty" and "libertarian morality" very seriously. Maybe I'm giving Rothbard short shrift here, but that's the standard take on his approach, and from what I've read of him, there's something to it.

Empirical utilitarianism is a more compelling defense of liberal economics. Free markets are good, because they are useful, because they serve humanity better as an empirical matter, not because particular formulations of "property" are "naturally right". We don't prove the utility of markets and the particular legal rights underlying them by deducing it from first principles. We discover this utility empirically, and the process of discovery is never ending.

We do not know which formulation of "property" is optimal, and the established formulation certainly is not optimal.

Martin Brock May 18, 2008 at 11:01 am

And that's why I'm a libertarian and not a conservative.

Sam Grove May 18, 2008 at 2:16 pm

Another case for liberal markets is that the alternatives require investing inordinate power in some 'elite' group to manage economic factors.

From the premise that individuals always act in their perceived self-interest, we might conclude that giving inordinate power to individuals is fraught with danger.

This is where morality may guide us.

Colin Keesee May 19, 2008 at 7:45 am

Martin Brock,

I agree with every thing you are saying. You are right, that someone with a fair understanding of economics, should be able to see how much economics cannot tell us. That ignorance, even among experts becomes an argument in and off itself against central planning and government intervention in and of itself.

I am sorry if I was vague about some of the situations where pro-regulation people claim to be realist and dismiss economic principles as theories with no applications to a given issue. I was mostly talking about trade and tariffs, where the well established rules of comparative advantage mean that free trade is going to be better than any government managed regimes of "fair trade" or "managed trade."
Another example I should have used has to do with how the Fed and government and they should deal with the turbulence in the financial markets. Moral hazard is a pretty simple but effect tool that can be used to predict that bailouts will lead to more problems down the line. Yet it is the pro-regulation folks who claim that worrying about moral hazard is just needless, "country club idealism" or "ivory tower theory” or what ever phrase that they use to dismiss well founded arguments against government intervention.

Since so many people are quick to dismiss well established economic theories in policy discussions, you are right that we should probably confront the statists who will dismiss any and all economic theory on the grounds that it is just "theory" but showing them the many empirical examples that helped to establish the more agreed upon theories. This way they cannot so easily dismiss the myriad instances where similar programs, being proposed by statists today, have been tried and have failed miserably. This way your argument contains no economics jargon and instead you can muster a barrage of examples of restricted trade, price controls, nationalization of industry, bailouts for firms and other “progressive policies” failing and often times failing in such a way that ordinary people have to pay the price in the form of a lower standard of living.

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