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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “‘Like little puffs of smoke'”

In my Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column of May 30th, 2007, I reprised a true story that I first published years earlier in The Freeman; it’s a different spin on the theme of the “seen versus unseen.” You can read my column beneath the fold.

‘Like little puffs of smoke’

I once knew two World War II veterans. Both were fine men. One, call him Bill, was a navigator on a B-29 bomber based in the Pacific. The other, call him Joe, was an infantryman in Europe. Fortunately, neither was injured during the war. Although alike in many ways, a notable difference between Bill and Joe was that Bill spent lots of time happily recalling his bomber days while Joe steadfastly refused to speak of his wartime experiences.

This difference between Bill and Joe contains a lesson about politics.

I once asked Bill why he retained such fond memories of the war while Joe recoiled from such memories. Bill’s response was revealing: “Joe fought in face-to-face combat. He saw blood and death up close. But for me the war was great. I flew lots of missions over Japan and nearby islands and 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 firsthand the destructive consequences of their actions.

Consider agricultural subsidies. They harm millions of people. Consumers pay unnecessarily higher prices for food while taxpayers dole out more wealth to support these programs. The higher prices and taxes, in turn, leave fewer resources available to produce other goods and services.

Subsidies make us poorer.

Most politicians know that subsidies harm the public. Yet there’s no end in sight to such wasteful programs.

Some observers argue that politicians are inherently evil. While I agree that representative democracy selects for office persons who are unusually hungry for power, I don’t believe that politicians’ character flaws are chiefly responsible for the interest-group feeding frenzy that today characterizes democratic government.

Few politicians are indifferent to human suffering. Most politicians have loving and beloved families and dear friends; these officials wouldn’t dream of mistreating people they deal with personally. This is why nearly every politician can look with a straight face into a camera and insist that he or she is a good person who only wants to do what’s right.

Nevertheless, politicians do many harmful things. The reason is that the ill effects of most political acts are revealed to politicians only in the form of statistics, charts and graphs. But such figures are faceless, bloodless. They are to politicians what little puffs of smoke are to bombers: Bombers know that tremendous human suffering occurs just beneath the puffs of smoke but because the bombers don’t encounter this suffering up close, they are largely unaffected by it.

It’s just not real to the officials who cause it. Likewise, statistics, charts and graphs seldom produce remorse or regret for politicians. It’s relatively easy to harm others when you never see your victims’ faces.

The problem of faceless victims 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 persistently seek special favors from government. And such persistence pays off, partly because politicians are not diabolical miscreants.

Government officials often go out of their way to lend a hand to familiar faces. And they no doubt feel proud and gratified when friendly farm lobbyists shake their hands warmly, slap them on the back and thank them for the subsidies. Just as politicians care little about victims they never see, they care sincerely about those with whom they are in close personal contact.

It’s human nature to favor friends over strangers, especially when those strangers are encountered merely as data points in bureaucratic reports. The longer a politician holds office, the more his or her circle of friends and acquaintances consists of interest-group representatives and other politicians, all of whom are forever seeking political favors.

In addition, extended time in office causes politicians to lose face-to-face contact with the ordinary folks back home.

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 less biased against consumers and other persons not represented by lobbyists strolling the halls of government power. Unfortunately, the reality of modern politics is that only groups with relatively few members can organize for face-to-face political lobbying.

Consequently, without some fundamental change in the scope of government, most citizens will continue to be victims of the policy bombs forever dropping out of Washington and state capitals.


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