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Don't expect much from politics

By Lawrence W. Reed
web posted October 1, 2001

The older I get, and the more I learn from observing politics, the more obvious it is that it's no way to run a business-or almost anything else, for that matter. The deficiencies, absurdities, and perverse incentives inherent in the political process are powerful enough to frustrate anyone with the best and most altruistic of intentions. It frequently exalts ignorance and panders to it. And a few notable exceptions aside, it tends to attract the most mediocre talent with motives that are questionable at best.

Earlier this year the ninth son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Max Kennedy, flirted with the idea of running for political office. A story in the July 15 New York Times Magazine recounted his ill-fated attempt at a stump speech riddled with trite one-liners like these: "I want to fight for all of you. I'll commit myself heart and soul to be the kind of congressman who cares about you. I'll dedicate myself to fighting for working families to have a fair chance. I make you this one pledge: I will always be there for you."

Kennedy's handler pressed him repeatedly for a "take-away message," something of substance that his audience would remember. "What do you want people to take away from it?" he asked several different ways. The would-be candidate stammered and couldn't think of much other than "I'm a nice guy" until finally he admitted, "I don't know. Whatever it has to be."

Eligible for public office? Certainly, though in this case the subject fizzled out before his campaign was ever lit and he has presumably found useful work elsewhere. Hundreds just like Max Kennedy get elected every year. But would it ever occur to you to put someone who talks this way in charge of your business? Outside of politics, is there any other endeavor in which such nonsense is as epidemic?

Welcome to the silly side of politics. It's characterized by no speak, doublespeak, and stupidspeak-the use of one's tongue, lips and other speechmaking body parts to sway minds without ever educating them, and deceiving them if necessary. The serious side of politics comes afterwards when the elected actually do something, even if-as is often the case-it bears little resemblance to what they promised. It's serious business in any case because it's the part where coercion puts flesh on the rhetorical bones. What makes a politician a politician, and differentiates politics from all other walks of life, is that the politician's words are backed up by his ability to deploy legal force on their behalf.

This is not a trivial point. After all, in the grand scheme of life there are ultimately only two ways to get what you want or get others that have hired you (or who depend on you) what they want. You can rely on voluntary action (work, production, trade, persuasion, and charity) or you can swipe. Exemplars of voluntary action are Mother Theresa, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, the author who writes those Harry Potter stories, and the kid who delivers your newspaper. When someone who isn't elected or appointed to any post in government swipes something, he's a thief. If acting in his capacity as a government official, one who might otherwise be thought of as a thief is considered at least by many to be a "public servant." And he's not swiping, he's "appropriating."

No generation ever grasped the meaning of this better than that of America's Founders. George Washington is credited with having declared that "Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it can be a dangerous servant or a fearful master." In other words, even when government is no larger than what Washington wanted and if it does its job so well as to be a true "servant," it's still "dangerous."

Indeed, it's on this point that all the difference in the world is made. Things that rely upon the regular affirmation of voluntary consent don't look at all like those that rest upon force. Whereas mutual consent encourages actual results and accountability, the political process puts a higher premium on the mere promise or claim of results and the shifting of blame to other parties.

To win or keep your patronage and support, a provider of goods or services must manufacture something of real value. A business that doesn't produce or a charity that doesn't meet a need will quickly disappear. To get your vote, a politician only has to look or sound better than the next one, even if both of them would renege on more pledges than they would keep. In the free marketplace, you almost always get what you pay for and pay for what you get. As a potential customer, you can say "No, Thanks" and take a walk. In politics, the connection between what you pay for and what you actually get is problematic at best.

This is another way of asserting that your vote in the marketplace counts for so much more than your vote in the polling booth. Cast your dollars for the washing machine of your choice and that's what you get-nothing more and nothing less. Pull the lever for the politician of your choice and most of the time, if you're lucky, you'll get some of what you do want and much of what you don't. And the votes of a special interest lobby may ultimately cancel yours out.

Some politicians like to rail against a practice in the private sector they call "bundling." If you want to buy a seller's computer operating system, for example, you may also have to buy his Internet browser. That's not much different from what happens at your local bookstore: you may only want Chapter One, but you've got to buy the whole book. But if "bundling" is a crime, then politics is Public Enemy No. 1. In some elections, the range of options amounts to Scarface on the one hand and Machine Gun Kelley on the other; everybody gets stuck with a bum and all of his baggage. Politics may not be the oldest profession, but the results are often the same.

These important distinctions between voluntary, civil society and coercion-based government explain why in politics the Max Kennedy-types are the rule rather than the exception. Say little or nothing, or say silly things, or say one thing and do another-and your prospects of success may only be enhanced. When the customers are captives, the seller may just as easily be the one who whispers seductive nonsense in their ears as the one who puts something real on their plates.

Like it or not, people judge private, voluntary activities by a higher standard than they do public acts of the political process. That's all the more reason to keep politics a small and isolated corner of our lives. We all have so many more productive things to tend to.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Midland, Michigan. This article will appear as his December 2001 column in Ideas on Liberty, the monthly journal of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. Write him at

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