Malts in the Cafeteria


Filed Under : Welfare State, Democracy

When I was in sixth grade, three of my classmates and I ran for student council president. The entire student body would vote, and the one with the most votes would be president; second-most, vice president; third, secretary; and fourth, treasurer. Looking back, I suppose the other three offices were mostly for show. The presidency was the only job that really mattered, and that was the job I wanted.

I hope you’ll believe me when I say I was motivated by only the purest intentions—I sincerely wanted to make the school a better place. I put a lot of time and thought into my speech and carefully selected an outfit to wear.

I realize now that my ideas for leading the school through the 1976–77 school year were nothing monumental. I wanted to place a suggestion box in the library so any student could make his or her ideas known; I wanted to start a student newspaper. Maybe there was something in the speech about soliciting student volunteers to pick up litter from the playground, and that the big kids should be deterred from bullying the little kids. At the time it seemed like a solid platform.

Todd, a red-haired, freckled boy on whom I’d had a crush since fourth grade, gave the first speech on election day. It (unlike him) was nothing remarkable. Though my heart was still loyal and he was definitely the cutest boy in our class, he was not, I decided, presidential material. My best friend, Debbie, gave her speech next. She was a worthier opponent, and prettier than I was, but still I felt confident, thinking I had a real shot at the power seat at Sharonville Elementary.

Then it was Chris’s turn. I remember just one sentence from his speech, but it was the sentence that torpedoed my dreams of the presidency: “Elect me and we will have malts in the cafeteria . . . every day!”

Now, really—frozen chocolate malts were a coveted treat. They cost a quarter extra, and the cafeteria ladies put them on the lunch menu maybe twice a month. To blithely suggest that it was within the student council president’s authority to open the floodgates and provide unlimited chocolate malts was irresponsible.

But it didn’t matter as long as the voters believed it.

My carefully thought-out speech was lost to the ages. Nothing I said would have mattered at that point. Chris had the election in the bag.

Chicanery! I was indignant, and even though the word chicanery wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time, I had just been schooled on the concept.

When the votes were tallied, the results were announced over the school public-address system. Chris had been elected president, I was vice president, Debbie was secretary, and Todd treasurer.

A month after our inauguration it became painfully clear that Chris could not deliver on his campaign promise, and his approval rating plunged. Hobbled by the bureaucracy in the cafeteria, he resigned office before he could be impeached. As vice president I assumed the president’s duties, and the suggestion box was installed in the library.

Malts in the cafeteria. Every time a politician makes a promise, that’s what I hear. It’s all just malts in the cafeteria.


November 2010

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November 2014

It's been 40 years since F. A. Hayek received his Nobel Prize. His insights, particularly on the distribution of knowledge and the impossibility of economic planning, remain hugely important today. In this issue, we look back on the influence of his work. Max Borders and Craig Biddle debate whether liberty must be defended from one absolute foundation, further reflections on Scottish secession, and how technology is already changing our world for the better--including how robots, despite the unease they cause, will only accelerate this process.
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