November 8, 2019
After all the election headlines this week of Democrat upsets and the Republican Party’s suburban struggles… we remind you that both “sides ” in Washington, D.C. aren’t so different…
Both want to take your money. And each wants to spend it on what they think is necessary.
Oh, they dither over the exact amounts, the whats, and the whys.
But politicians have only one target to get all that money they want to spend…
Whether that means you pay now via taxes… or they issue debt that you’re on the hook for in the future.
Do you think the government you’re getting is worth what you’re paying?
Today, amid the chatter of presidential impeachment, legislative turnover, and a potential government shutdown, we’re re-reading P.J. O’Rourke’s letter from our “Politics” issue this spring for why and how our government got so terrible…
Everyone Loses in the Zero-Sum Game Called Politics
For people like me who consider themselves to be libertarian, the 35-day “government shutdown” at the beginning of this year was a real be-careful-what-you wish-for moment.
What I had in mind was more like cabinet members and congressmen going to the payday lender, senators sleeping under bridges, and the president of the United States selling his wife’s Manolo Blahniks on eBay to pay the Domino’s delivery boy at state dinners.
Instead, what we got was very crabby unpaid TSA agents who would have done a strip search on me right in the middle of the airport if there hadn’t been a whole line of people at the security checkpoint begging not to see me naked.
We got Yellowstone National Park rangers pawning the bears to make car payments. National Gallery curators chalking pictures on the sidewalk hoping somebody would drop a quarter in their hats. Grade-school field trips to Washington in which the closest the kids got to a tour of the Capitol Building was looking at a picture of it on the back of the $50 bills that lobbyists charge per minute.
Because lobbyists weren’t closed for business. And neither were the other high muck-a-mucks who actually move the levers and work the pulleys of government – the Earls of Entitlement Spending, the Dukes of Deficit, the Nabobs of National Debt, the Magnates of Unfunded Mandates.
Government shutdown? Our government is so bad at doing everything that it can’t even do nothing right.
And how did our government get so bad? Bad politics.
But how did our politics get to be so bad?
Simple. Politics grew worse because politics grew.
Sometimes when things grow, it’s good – like when the grown kids finally move out of the house. But sometimes when things grow… It’s a growth… It’s a tumor…
Right now, we have a gigantic political tumor. And I’m not optimistic about the biopsy.
The growth of politics is the opposite of the growth of liberty. The growth of politics kills the growth of liberty.
When liberty grows, we get the expansion of free enterprise and free markets. We create more goods, services, and benefits to society. The pie gets bigger.
But politics is not about creating more goods, services, and benefits to society. Politics is about dividing them up.
When liberty grows, the pie gets bigger. When politics grows, the slices get smaller.
Politics is all about promising things to people. “The auction of goods about to be stolen,” as H.L. Mencken famously put it.
The promises are lies, of course. But it isn’t just the untruth of a lie that matters. The size of the lie matters, too.
When the political system is small, it promises a few things to a few people. Naturally they’re disappointed. But it’s just a few people, just a small number of beggars at the polls looking for political handouts. And if they go away with a dime when they thought they were going to get a dollar, no big deal. (Or should I say, “New Deal”? Or “Fair Deal”? Or “Great Society”?)
We survived those growths of the political system… if just barely.
But when the political system expands to the truly amazing, incomprehensibly enormous size of our political system… things are different.
Our political system has grown to the size where it promises everything to all of us.
And everybody is disappointed. Everybody goes away empty-handed. Everybody feels cheated.
Does this make us mad at our political system? Yes. But mostly it makes us mad at each other – angry at the other people who are competing for the government’s largess.
Because politics is a zero-sum game the way freedom and free markets are not.
Zero-sum games are not played for kicks and giggles. Zero-sum games are blood sports.
Yes, there’s competition in the freedom of free markets. That’s what makes them work. Competition is the vermouth in the martini. But as it is with martinis, so it is with free markets. For every one part competition vermouth, there are six parts of that top-shelf gin called spontaneous cooperation among free people.
(Which always seems to leave politicians “shaken, not stirred.”)
Adam Smith pointed it out 243 years ago: Among free people, in a free market exchange of goods and services, everyone comes out ahead. Each person gives something he or she values less in return for something he or she values more. Both sides win.
You’ve got the olives. I’ve got the cocktail shaker. Bottoms up!
But in politics, only one side can win. What’s at stake in politics isn’t goods and services – it’s power. Power is always zero-sum. When I sell you goods and services, I gain something in return. When I sell you power over myself – and that’s what the political exchange is all about – I lose everything.
Under the condition of liberty, if you have a swimming pool and a Bentley, I can get a swimming pool and Bentley, too. Under the condition of politics, you can drown me in your swimming pool and run me over with your Bentley.
In politics, only one side can win. Which is bad. But what’s worse is this means there have to be sides…
Faction – angry partisan faction – isn’t just a byproduct of politics… It is politics. Politics cannot exist without faction. Politics cannot exist without people fighting each other.
Put down the free market goods and services pie… Pick up the pie knife of politics.
Freedom and free markets bring us all together in the marketplace… Politics carves us up.
Politics pits us against each other. Politics turns us into warring tribes.
Politics hands us the spear of outrage at the slightest perceived slight to our primitive clan, smears us with the war paint of identity politics, gives us the shield of political correctness, and tells us that we’re not naked savages squatting around a smoldering fire of resentment and envy, but that we’re Noble Social Justice Warriors.
Politics pits one ethnic group against another. And it does it for free. It doesn’t even charge us the way 23andMe or Ancestory.com do.
Politics pits men against women – as if we didn’t have the institution of marriage doing a fine job of that already.
Politics pits immigrants against… against whom? We’re all immigrants in this country. Even Native Americans came across the land bridge from Siberia saying, “See you later, freezing Siberians with your itchy wooly mammoth long underwear and mastodon meat on your breath. We’re off to the beautiful Pacific Northwest – beachfront property, split-level wigwams, and salmon frying on the backyard barbeque grill!”
Finally – and most dangerously – politics pits one generation of Americans against another. The millennials are mad at the Baby Boomers for soaking up all the Social Security and Medicare gravy while, at the same time, refusing to retire, leaving the millennials to work in a “gig economy” where they make a living by driving each other around for Uber.
There are now more millennial voters than there are Baby Boomers. And they’ve got Uber to take them to the polls while the rest of us are still trying to figure out how that app works.
The kids love Bernie Sanders. Not because of his youthful good looks, but because Bernie and his Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ilk have convinced the kids that they can’t get more unless they use an expanded political system to take more away from… everybody reading this.
According to a poll conducted by BuzzFeed, almost half of millennial-age Democrats identify themselves as “democratic socialists.” And according to a recent Gallup poll, nearly 60% of all Democrats have a favorable opinion of socialism.
But can’t these voters see how a vastly expanded political system has enormous unsustainable costs?
No. Not when that truth is obscured behind the obscene bulk of politics.
Politics, by its own internal logic, is driven to expand. Yet politics fails because it expands.
Politics is like a balloon. Think of politics as an inflatable latex item like… um… like the inflatable latex item us guys all carried in our wallets (more in hope than in expectation) when we were 16.
Politics at that scale can be a kind of “useful safeguard to liberty.” And even then, it doesn’t always prove reliable. A shotgun marriage may ensue.
But, if you make like a politician instead of a Romeo and blow a lot of hot air into that inflatable latex item, it gets very fragile.
Actually, with politics it’s worse than fragile… It has the potential to be tragic. When you over-inflate politics, you can start out with a Trojan, safe and secure in a little foil pack of Constitutionalism, and wind up with the Hindenburg. “Oh, the humanity!”
It’s been tried. And tried and tried… We now have a proven track record of how socialism goes. A track record that is more than a century long as of the November 7, 2017, 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. That went well.
So how is it that so many young, fresh, new Democratic voters and so many not-so-young – but full of fresh, new ambition – Democratic politicians are suddenly in love with socialism?
There’s a joke that libertarians have been e-mailing each other, a joke that explains the way our millennial “democratic socialists” fail to understand the danger – the fatal danger – of socialism.
A libertarian walks into a bar at 9:58 p.m. and happens to sit down on a barstool next to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The libertarian stares up at the bar’s TV screen as the 10 o’clock news comes on. The news crew has its camera on a man on a ledge of a tall building, getting ready to jump.
Alexandria looks at the libertarian and says, “Do you think he’ll jump?” the libertarian says, “I bet he will.” Alexandria says, “Well, I bet he won’t.” The libertarian puts $20 on the bar and says, “You’re on.”
Just as Alexandria puts her own money on the bar, the man on the TV screen does a swan dive off the building and falls to his death. Alexandria is very upset, but she hands her $20 to the libertarian, saying, “OK, here’s your money.”
The libertarian says, “I can’t take your money. I saw this earlier on the 5 o’clock news, and I knew he would jump.”
Alexandria says, “I saw it too. But I didn’t think he’d do it again.”
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
A state law allows counties to effectively steal homes over unpaid taxes and keep the excess revenue for their own budgets.
No single spending item is going to solve America’s $22 trillion national debt, but every little bit of wasteful spending makes the tough problems more difficult to solve.
Reader’s Digest reports: Do you know where your tax dollars are going?
“Any time you’re colder than comfortable, it can quickly spiral downward,” says polar explorer Eric Larsen. Larsen has spent approximately three years of his life camping atop the frozen Arctic Ocean and in Antarctica, so he knows cold. With a few key techniques, he’s managed to keep all of his fingers and toes.
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Publisher, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
November 8, 2019