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Friday, January 11, 2008

“Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss”

FEE has long stayed above the electoral fray, and for darn good reasons. Politics is a poor forum for serious discussion of political philosophy and economics. Complicated ideas don't fit well into sound bites, and the news media and learned pundits are too busy interpreting the latest poll results to explore what's right or wrong with a candidate's ideas on medical insurance, energy policy, or war. Most people apparently like it that way. Politics is more like show-biz — specifically, melodrama and soap opera — than anything else. And people behave differently in the political realm than they do in the marketplace. (When was the last time you chose a car dealership because the salesman choked back tears on the thought he was losing your business?)

Let's face it, politics is a superficial activity in which (most) candidates try to create a mood by pushing buttons expected to stimulate positive responses in significant constituencies. If one button doesn't have the intended effect, you push another and keep pushing until you have assembled a winning coalition. That's all you need to know about electoral politics. It explains the staged events, the self-serving declarations about the passion to serve, and the hubristic claims to the mantle of leadership.

What's this have to do with the cause of freedom, free markets, and peace? Precious little.

Note the dominant themes in the current campaign: hope, change, experience, straight talk.

Hope for what?

Change toward what?

Experience at what?

Straight talk about what?

It doesn't matter. These terms, and there are others, are not meant to inform. They are meant to seduce. Unfortunately, most voters are waiting to be seduced — by a sound bite, a smile, a possible tear in the eye. We have a good indication why this is so. As Bryan Caplan explains, since the consequences of the individual's vote are negligible, voters have every incentive to select candidates according to their own pre-rational prejudices, most of which run contrary to economic wisdom and libertarian principles. They vote for the man or woman who makes them feel good.

Do we wonder why the freedom philosophy fares poorly in elections? Admittedly, there have been rare times when slogans seemingly drawn from the freedom philosophy have figured in a successful campaign. But any naive optimism induced by such a campaign was soon crushed. Through the years, and almost inexorably, government has grown, a fact neatly hidden by defining reductions in the planned rate of spending growth as budget cuts or increases in government borrowing and attendant monetary expansion as a tax cuts.

The Who's old song Won't Get Fooled Again seems cynical, but its political realism is hard to deny: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Liberty Would Be Change

Considering that government has increasingly had its hands in everything for ages, the only real change would be toward laissez faire and liberty. But that's not what the candidates with a chance at being elected promise, not even the ones in the allegedly free-market party. Not by a long shot. (A party of business is not the same as thing as a party of free markets.) Listen to what they say about medicine and energy. The free-enterprise approach to medicine, to judge by this campaign, is to tinker with the existing state-riddled system in order to create incentives for private insurance companies to do what the politicians want them to do. That's the supposed alternative to proposals for taking the profit out of medical insurance. It's a bad joke.

No one points out that the politicians have imposed so many regulations and mandates and taken over so much of the financing, that there is barely a medical marketplace left. Most medical care is paid for by third parties, government or tax-privileged insurance companies, virtually relegating patients to the status of children and short-circuiting the cost-consciousness of consumers. Real reform would mean that neither bureaucrats nor insurance companies limit our medical choices because we exercise self-responsibility. The only way to achieve that is the wholesale depoliticizing of medicine, something candidates who want to win typically have no appetite for.

And energy. Today all candidates proposing energy independence are aspiring central planners. (Since they propose to regulate and subsidize, not nationalize, energy companies, they are, technically, fascists not state socialists.) They all claim to know what forms of energy are best and are ready to use the power of government — physical force — to impose them on us. Again, some of them talk about creating incentives for private companies to do the right thing. But this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding. Freedom and free markets do not mean that politicians set the objectives and then manipulate the tax and regulatory code so that private companies have a financial interest in achieving them.

Don't expect candidates with their eyes on the prize to point out that whatever problems exist in energy are created by government. A variety of subsidies (which include U.S. foreign policy), taxes, and regulations shield energy firms and consumers from the full costs of their actions. The result is market distortion and perhaps, when all the costs are accounted for, an overuse of oil. The only way we'll find out is, again, through depoliticization of the marketplace. No privileges, no protection, no rigging of the game, whether for gasoline or ethanol, coal or nuclear, natural gas or solar.

But the candidates would rather tout energy independence, as though suddenly the division of labor is a bad thing. (Do they realize that most of our oil imports come from places other than the Persian Gulf? Or that two of our top three sources are in North America?)

The Trailing Edge

For six decades the guiding lights at FEE have understood that at best politics is the trailing, not the leading, edge of social change. Until a critical mass of people understand that liberty is moral and practical, and demand that the state back off, the politicians will continue to give them shoddy theater instead of respect.

Don't expect this to happen the other way around, with politicians leading the way. Without plenty of people insisting on liberty and limits on power, there will be nothing to gain for a politician who wants to win above all else.

Will a large enough mass of people ever demand freedom? That's where FEE and its supporters come in.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.