An Open Letter to Sara

by Don Boudreaux on August 29, 2008

in Politics

Dr. Boudreaux,

Why are you so bitter about politics? Why so cynical? Why don’t you give candidates and office holders the benefit of the doubt when they say they want to help others?

Sara

This e-mail just appeared in my e-mailbox.  I have no idea who Sara is, but rather than answer her privately, I’ll answer her here.

Dear Sara:

Thanks for writing.  I often say, quite sincerely, that I’m not cynical about politics; I’m realistic about politics.

If a stranger knocks on your door and tells you that he or she is here for the express purpose of helping you, of serving you, of making your life better — not because of anything that he or she will gain by doing so, but because he or she believes in your goodness and knows that you deserve more than you have — what would you think?  Would you give this person the benefit of the doubt, and trust that he or she really and truly is motivated chiefly and overwhelmingly by a desire to serve you?

Would you continue to give this person the benefit of the doubt on this score when he or she informs you that, to help you, he or she must have the power to tax you and to take away some of your liberties?  When he or she assures you that, by some mysterious process, he or she "feels your pain"?  When he or she modestly exclaims that those other persons standing on your porch ready to make pretty much the same offer cannot possibly care about you as much as he or she cares about you — cannot possibly have sufficient skill, determination, and wisdom to improve your life; that only he or she possesses these qualities?

Would that benefit of the doubt continue to be given when you learn that, should you decide to trust this stranger with some of your wealth and your liberties, he or she will get lots of prestige and acclaim and applause simply because he or she holds power over you?

And would you persist in giving this person the benefit of the doubt when, should you ask probing questions about his or her motives or about inconsistencies you believe to have spotted in the plans he or she laid out for helping you, he or she suddenly begins dissembling or speaking in platitudes or vague generalities, or launches into stories of his or her past glory in some endeavor or other that has little to do with the power that he or she now seeks from you?

I suspect, Sara, that should such a person arrive at your door and deliver such a spiel to you that you’d quickly slam the door in his or her face, convinced (and correctly so) that that person is either an utter goofball or a supremely arrogant busybody.  You’d want nothing at all to do with him or her, and if he or she persisted in knocking on your door you’d call the police or your bouncer-friend Bubba to escort this obnoxious person as far away from your home as possible.

So, if you’d not give such a person the benefit of the doubt, why in the world are you surprised that I don’t give Barack Obama, John McCain, or any other successful politician you care to name the benefit of the doubt?

Sincerely,
Don Boudreaux

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{ 35 comments }

Unit August 29, 2008 at 5:55 pm

Don for President!…of the American Economics Society.

Ryan August 29, 2008 at 6:18 pm

Great Post,

I would add that even if the person that comes to your door has truly pure intentions; even then they can't do a lick of good.

Statism doesn’t work. Not because of people intentions and motivations (though this is part of it); but because the nature of reality won’t allow it to.

scott clark August 29, 2008 at 6:42 pm

why on earth would they need political office to help others? they could say i want to help these people and i want to help them by hurting these sets of people, and to hurt these sets of people I need your support so i can have the patina of legitimacy, that would be closer to truth. if they said i want to help some people who are close to them, they really want to help themselves and their ego and placate their need for attention and adulation, and they want to transfer resources from groups who don' t have a political cover, and they want you to vote for them so they can have a some threadbare claim to legitimacy, they would be even closer to the truth. If they added that to do all this they would be willing to sell their own mother into horrendous slavery, they would be right on the money.

Tom Kelly August 29, 2008 at 7:01 pm

Let's talk about another Sara(h).

Don, while I agree with you on almost everthing (you are a genius at getting to the heart of just about everything), I think you are a little hard on politicians- somebody has to do that job.

Which brings me to Sarah Palin. I think she is the most unpolitician politician this country has had running for national office during my 48 year lifetime.

I've spent most of today reading about her and watching her on video- and she's 90% or more "a regular person". I think she will make a huge difference in Washington if she can manage to still be regular person.

So I don't think today is the best day to be cynical about politicians. It is a great day to celebrate the fact that we may finally get one with real integrity.

Mark N. August 29, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Best post ever.

Adam August 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm

Tom, no one has to "do that job." I don't see why the job of slavemaster really needs to be filled.

And if Sarah Palin really is a regular person, then we can safely assume that high public office will corrupt her beyond redemption.

vidyohs August 29, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Don,

Sir, I salute you for a most magnificent response to Sara.

That was dipolomacy and statesmanship at its highest, and believe me sir by now you know my praise is hard won.

If you have no objections, sir, I am going to copy/paste it to my e-mail list and make sure many others read it.

vidyohs August 29, 2008 at 7:52 pm

Don,

Sir, I salute you for a most magnificent response to Sara.

That was diplomacy and statesmanship at its finest; and, Sir, you know my praise is not freely given.

If you have no objection I am going to copy/paste it and send it to my e-mail list to make sure it is read by many others.

Tom Kelly August 29, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Adam:

Are you an anarchist?

Somebody has to do the job of running even a minimal government. No government results in self appointed mob rule- see Somalia and countless others.

Sure, I'd love Don Boudreaux to be President and most of the commenters here to be his Cabinet Members. Somehow I suspect he and we are lacking the political skills necessary to be elected. Politics is a necessary evil in a participatory system of governance.

vidyohs August 29, 2008 at 7:53 pm

I must have been excited, twice no less.

Shakes The Clown August 29, 2008 at 8:16 pm

Simple genius makes the classics classic.

Well Done!

Adam August 29, 2008 at 8:44 pm

Tom,

Whether we need a government is a matter of opinion – I don't see why we do, although most people seem to agree with you. I think we can get along fine without any group of people being granted (or, more likely, seizing) the exclusive right to exercise coercive force.

I agree that Prof. Boudreaux and the rest of us lack political skills. But I also think that this observation is more or less the same as saying that he and we lack the ruthlessness needed to become a mafia don.

mr.beachbums August 29, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Palin is more luckies VP than Biden since since mc.cain drives an old SUV/off-road vehicles (the spare wheel mounted externally.)
Other candidates drives hip-hop Cadillac-Oldsmobile, as long as i knew the hip-hop cadilac stowed spare tire inside the trunk.(in most cases hip-hop showcases car no need spare tires, couse the golden wheel is expensives, the spare tire normaly fitted on an old whell)

kurt August 29, 2008 at 10:28 pm

McCain pulls a Mr. Smith on Obama and I'm kinda liking it for the spectacle. Expensive spectacle, but spectacle nonetheless.

Ian August 29, 2008 at 11:20 pm

To those who think economist-presidents–Don or anyone else–would do a better job than other politicians, you're missing the point. I think Don is saying that it is the post, not the person, that corrupts.

Just to keep his job, even a smart and well-intentioned individual would have to offer, at a minimum, what the competing charlatans are offering. I suspect Don would agree that he would fare no better than the average politician at avoiding this bind.

Wayne August 29, 2008 at 11:30 pm

Second that: "Best post ever."

Ken August 29, 2008 at 11:38 pm

"Whether we need a government is a matter of opinion – I don't see why we do" -Adam

That we need a government is a fact. Take any city as an example in this country (or any other) during a police strike and you'll quickly realize how wrong that needing a government is just 'an opinion' (don't quote me some foolish rant about how the private sector can provide a definition of property rights and provide a more or less neutral arbitration of those rules- this has NEVER happened and taking human nature into account this can never happen).

What size and scope the government should be is a matter of opinion. Below a certain threshold there is no opinion (anarchy is indeed short and brutish) and above a certain threshold there is no opinion (Stalin and Mao). There seems to be a rather large gray area.

Due to the self interestedness of EVERYONE, it is self-evident to all libertarians that politicians (who control the police and military) need to be given only a very modest amount of power.

I wish people would think before they posted anything that may be wistful or positive about anarchy. It's filled only with violence. The closest thing humans ever came to anarchy was a tribal state. Every tribal state in recorded history provided a level of violence that is truly shocking and disgusting.

For starters try:
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

Adam August 29, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Ken,

I'm not so fortunate as to have learned the sum total of human history, but I do know that there are a great many examples of the private provision of what are usually alleged to be "core" government services that cannot otherwise be provided.

http://tinyurl.com/6eglsp

Sam Grove August 30, 2008 at 1:12 am

That we need a government is a fact.

It's a belief, but it is a fact that many hold that belief.

Hans Luftner August 30, 2008 at 1:21 am

Politics is a necessary evil in a participatory system of governance.

So you admit it's evil? That's a start.

DJB August 30, 2008 at 1:56 am

Ken, I think you are confusing the Law for Government.

DJB August 30, 2008 at 1:57 am

That should read "law" , not "the law"

Crusader August 30, 2008 at 3:14 am

Palin will not be corrupted by DC. Mark my words. She is Reagan II.

Palin/Jindal 2012!

cpurick August 30, 2008 at 8:01 am

Excellent!

Per Kurowski August 30, 2008 at 10:43 am

If you do not give the elected authorities in your country the benefit of the doubt, it means you will impose on your country the costs of doubt. If this is only done by a Dear Tenured Professor I guess not much harm is done but what if everyone in the country starts withholding the benefit of the doubt? what would happen? bliss?

When you are not tenured, you need to give people the benefit of doubt since otherwise life, without hope, would be unbearable.

Marcus August 30, 2008 at 11:55 am

That is a false hope.

Randy August 30, 2008 at 7:40 pm

Per Kurowski,

That's exactly what the religious say about those who don't believe in god.

I have been an atheist for many years, but I have recently become apolitical as well – and the experience of becoming an atheist is remarkably similar to the experience of becoming apolitical. When one begins to view religious sentiment, or political sentiment, from outside the framework of beliefs and propaganda that one has been exposed to, evidence of the absurdity of those beliefs appears at every turn. At this point I would say that religion is simply a form of politics. I include both the religious and the political in my understanding of "the political class".

Paul McCartney August 31, 2008 at 6:27 am

Do yourself the favor, open the door and Let 'Em In.

People from the government are really there to help, are they not?

Sam Grove August 31, 2008 at 1:34 pm

If you do not give the elected authorities in your country the benefit of the doubt, it means you will impose on your country the costs of doubt. If this is only done by a Dear Tenured Professor I guess not much harm is done but what if everyone in the country starts withholding the benefit of the doubt? what would happen? bliss?

As opposed to the costs imposed by giving politicians the benefit of doubt?

The cost of hope with regard to the political process is to sustain the leechery. No, not lechery, leechery.

…you need to give people the benefit of doubt since otherwise life, without hope, would be unbearable.

Hope for what? That political animals will change their stripes?

Randy August 31, 2008 at 2:12 pm

A bit off topic, but I've been thinking about Labor Day and feel the need to get those thoughts down.

I haven't been a big fan of Labor Day. It seems to me like a big propaganda event staged by the political class in honor of its union enforcers. But I was thinking about the fact that I'll be working tomorrow, and it occurred to me that a great many people will be working tomorrow. People who don't have to work, but want to and will anyway, for reasons all their own. Such people are worth a celebration. So, here's to people who believe in honest work – and the political class can kiss my ass.

vidyohs August 31, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Wow! Tenure is connected to hope. A revelation!

"When you are not tenured, you need to give people the benefit of doubt since otherwise life, without hope, would be unbearable.
Posted by: Per Kurowski | Aug 30, 2008 10:43:35 AM"

Specifically, people from the government or who aspire to government positions, as Marcus said, offer false hope…just words, empty rhetoric. What they will do is suck all hope out of everyone.

jorod September 1, 2008 at 12:28 am

Right On, Don

Sam Grove September 1, 2008 at 5:52 pm

I wish people would think before they posted anything that may be wistful or positive about anarchy. It's filled only with violence. The closest thing humans ever came to anarchy was a tribal state. Every tribal state in recorded history provided a level of violence that is truly shocking and disgusting.

Excuse me, but that is a misreading of history.

The level and extent of violence perpetrated by rulers, and those who aspired to rule, exceeds by orders of magnitude, anything ever done by those who desired to live without rulers.

It was apologists for the state who perpetrated the notion that anarchy=chaos, despite the evidence that large scale chaos is induced by the state.

What is the state, but a formalized tribal structure.

Hammer September 2, 2008 at 9:10 am

Per, there is a great difference between the "benefit of the doubt" and "response based on past history". The former is what you extend to someone whom you have never met, and otherwise have no knowledge of; the latter is when you see the results of a person's actions or professed plans, and then use that information in the future.

In other words, after your politician sticks you with a hot poker while stating "It won't hurt a bit", it is silly to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says he wants to do it again, but "this time, will be different!" After a point you are just willfully being ignorant of the facts.

indiana jim September 3, 2008 at 3:08 am

Great job Don with one exception: Listing Obama and McCain both as if they are cut from the same whole cloth creates cognitive dissonance. I've mentioned this in another post on a different track, so it would seem that you either disagree, or maybe did not read that one. Still, you get a 99% from me.

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