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Freeman Essay #6: “Losing Touch”

Of all the many essays that I’ve written for the Freeman, the one below the fold – “Losing Touch” – is among my favorites.  It first appeared in the June 1994 issue.  (An update: I later learned that “Joe” was indeed shot while fighting in, I think, France.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a serious injury.)

I know two veterans of World War II. Both are exceptionally fine and patriotic Americans. One, call him Bill, flew as a navigator on a B-29 bomber based in the Pacific. The other, call him Joe, fought as an infantryman in Europe. Fortunately, neither was injured during the war. Although alike in many ways, a notable difference between Bill and Joe is that Bill is forever and with great relish recalling his bomber days, while Joe steadfastly refuses to mention his wartime experiences. Odd as it may seem, this difference between Bill and Joe contains an important lesson about big government and democratic politics.

Politicians, Like Bombers, Seldom See Their Victims . . .

I once asked Bill why he attended so many reunions with his former crew members and why he never tired of recollecting his war years. And why does Joe say absolutely nothing about his time in the army? Bill’s response is revealing. “Joe fought in combat, face to face with the enemy. He saw lots of blood and guts and death and suffering. But for me, the war was great. Nothing bad happened to me. My buddies and I flew lots of missions over Japan and nearby islands. All I ever saw were little puffs of smoke on the ground where our bombs hit.”

Reflecting on Bill’s response, I realized that politicians and their bureaucratic appointees are much like bomber crews: they wreak much havoc, but seldom experience first hand the consequences of their actions. As a result, political activity is generally pleasurable. But if governing were more like infantry service and less like bombing runs—that is, if politicians witnessed firsthand all the suffering unleashed by government taxation and regulation—politicians would surely be less enthusiastic about their schemes.

Agricultural subsidies are a good example. Farm-price supports inflict all sorts of harm on millions of people. Consumers pay unnecessarily higher prices for food while taxpayers dole out more in taxes to support and administer these programs. These higher prices and heavier tax burdens, in turn, have a significant injurious secondary effect: fewer resources are available for producing other worthwhile goods and services. Also, poor people shoulder a disproportionate share of this unnecessary wealth destruction because they spend larger percentages of their incomes on food than do wealthy citizens. In short, the nation is a poorer and more unjust place because of agricultural subsidies.

Politicians know that agricultural subsidies are destructive. Washington’s unremitting stream of partisan bombast and simple-minded sound bites should not be taken as evidence that politicians are stupid. They aren’t. Most politicians are quite aware that agricultural subsidies confiscate enormous wealth from large numbers of people in order to give it, after much skimming by the bureaucracy, to a small number of politically influential farmers in a way that works against the public interest. Yet there appears to be no end in sight to such wasteful programs.

Some observers succumb to utter cynicism and argue that politicians are inherently evil. While I don’t deny that representative democracy tends to select peculiar types of people for political office—perhaps people who are, typically, a bit more hungry for power and fame than is the average citizen—I don’t believe that politicians’ character flaws are responsible for the interest-group feeding frenzy that today characterizes democratic government.

Few politicians are indifferent to human suffering and misfortune. Most politicians in the United States come from solid middle-class backgrounds, have loving and beloved families and dear friends, and wouldn’t dream of mistreating people they deal with personally. I daresay the personal values most politicians possess differ imperceptibly from the personal values motivating most of middle-class America. This is why, with straight faces, nearly every politician can look squarely into a camera’s lens and insist that he or she is a good person who only wants to do what’s right. Friends of liberty do their cause no favors by exaggerating the moral shortcomings of politicians or by portraying them as inherently stupid, fiendish, or sinister.

Nevertheless, politicians do many harmful things. The reason, I believe, is that—like the destruction wrought by bombers—the ill effects of most political acts are like little puffs of smoke. Politicians seldom come face to face with people whose suffering is perceptibly caused by government policies.

Of course, politicians do see stacks of statistics, charts, and graphs telling them (if they choose to pay attention) of the higher food prices caused by agricultural policies, as well as of the many other maladies inflicted by their programs. But such figures are faceless. These figures are to politicians what little puffs of smoke are to bombers: bombers know that tremendous human suffering occurs just beneath the little puffs of smoke, but because the bombers don’t encounter this suffering up-close and personal, they are largely unaffected by it. Likewise, statistics, charts, and graphs seldom cause remorse or regret for politicians. It is relatively easy to harm others when you never see your victims face to face.

. . . But Politicians Do See Interest-Group Beneficiaries

The problem of faceless victims of government is compounded by the fact that there is a class of people that politicians do see face to face on a regular basis: members of organized interest groups. Interest groups are persistent in seeking special privileges from government. And such persistence pays off, partly because politicians are not diabolical miscreants. Most politicians are just like you and me: They are often willing to go out of their way to lend a hand to familiar and friendly faces. Politicians no doubt feel proud and gratified when familiar farming lobbyists shake their hands warmly, slap them on the back, and thank them for higher price supports. Just as politicians care little about victims they never see, they care very sincerely about those with whom they are in daily face-to-face contact.

It is human nature to favor friends and familiar acquaintances over unnamed, faceless others—other people encountered by politicians only as data points in various reports. The longer a politician remains in Washington (or in a state capital), the more his or her circle of friends and acquaintances comes to be composed of interest-group representatives and other politicians, all of whom are forever seeking special favors. In addition, extended time in office inevitably causes politicians to lose face-to-face contact with the folks back home—the ordinary folks, that is, rather than the special-interest groups.


If every politician actually saw the faces of his or her victims in addition to the faces of his or her interest-group clients, the political game would be far less biased against consumers and other persons who are not represented by lobbyists strolling the halls of government power. Unfortunately, the nature of interest-group politics is that only those groups with relatively few members can organize effectively to conduct face-to-face political lobbying of elected officials. Consequently, without some fundamental change in the scope of government or our political institutions, most citizens will continue to be victims of the policy bombs forever dropping out of Washington and state capitals.