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Con Artists

In my latest column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I describe the sorry state of the typical politician’s ethics.  A slice:

This capacity to adjust our expectations to prevailing reality, though, serves us poorly when it comes to politics. Political reality is full of politicians who refuse to take principled stands out of fear that doing so will lose them votes, or who dissemble and even lie in efforts to bolster their prospects at the polls. Yet because such unprincipled behavior and deceit are so commonly practiced by politicians, we’ve grown accustomed to reprehensible behavior by politicians and accept it as being simply a feature that we must tolerate

An irony that would be comical if its consequences weren’t so dire is that government’s power expands as voters demand that politicians protect them from being deceived and cheated in private markets. Ponder this strange fact: Politicians whose deceptions in elections are readily tolerated are asked by voters to police against possible deceptions by entrepreneurs in private markets. It’s like asking the brute who just robbed you at gunpoint to serve as your personal bodyguard. True, he’s got a gun and isn’t afraid to use it, but why would you trust him to wield his weapon in your interest rather in his own interest?

Of course, deceptions perpetrated by merchants and employers in private markets are deplorable. But consumers and workers can avoid such deceptions much more easily than they can avoid deceptions by politicians. The plumber who fails to perform as promised or the employer who refuses to honor the terms of an employment contract will soon find his customers fleeing and his workers quitting. And any wronged customer or worker can walk away even if all other customers and workers continue to be duped. The very real threat of losing business and workers goes a long way toward keeping private businesses honest. Yet politics is different: Lying improves candidates’ chances of success.


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