All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1997

The Failure of Politics

Government Is No Substitute for Individual Responsibility

Mr. Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist. He is the author of several books, most recently, Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

As my Cato Institute colleague Ted Galen Carpenter has pointed out, people once thought that the President’s primary duty was to represent America in foreign affairs. Today many people think he is supposed to be national nursemaid. Instead of expecting their pastor to feel their pain, many Americans want the President to empathize with them when they experience hardship, help them cope with tragedy, and give meaning to their lives.

Almost as bad is the belief that every problem, no matter how inconsequential, is a matter for Washington—Congress as well as the President—to decide. Should children wear school uniforms? How can we best ensure people’s access to child care? Should companies offer family leave to their employees? What is the appropriate level of mental health benefits to include in health insurance policies? Many Americans seem to believe that these are political issues upon which campaigns should be fought. And upon such issues they are fought.

Yet however dreary this makes elections for the believer in liberty, it should give us hope as well. For the American people seem to be growing ever more frustrated with the failures of politics. Which means that average citizens are likely to become more skeptical of Uncle Sam acting as Earth Mother.

There is perhaps no better evidence of public dissatisfaction than people’s increasing tendency to ignore elections. Only one-quarter of the electorate admitted to paying close attention to the 1996 campaign in the final week, 40 percent less than four years before. Voter turnout was the lowest in a presidential election since 1924. Many citizens expressed their desperate yearning for a real alternative to the Washington conventional wisdom. In short, ever more people seem to realize that politics, as the means to raise their children, ensure their futures, and provide meaning to their lives, is a deadend. Citizens increasingly see that political society is dominated by empty vessels interested in little more than acquiring power, politicians who run from problems, offer pablum instead of solutions, and cheapen political debate by focusing on trivia instead of ideas.

In short, public dissatisfaction with politics is a heaven-sent opportunity. Indeed, what could be better from the standpoint of liberty?

True, some pundits consider falling political interest to be a bad thing. Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate fusses over declining voting rates at a time when the electorate is older, better educated, and less mobile. He blames a number of factors, including anti-government demagoguery.

Yet there is nothing demagogic in noting that public authorities take far too much of people’s incomes—over 40 percent. Nor in pointing out that major government programs, particularly Medicare and Social Security, are heading toward fiscal disaster. There is nothing demagogic in showing how a host of unnecessary and burdensome regulations slow economic growth and keep people out of jobs. Nor in observing that U.S. intervention overseas often causes more harm than good. There is nothing demagogic in criticizing abuse of power by law enforcement agencies. Nor in demonstrating how misguided government programs like welfare destroy family and community. Rather, doing so is merely speaking the truth.

Government Fails

There are many reasons, as readers of The Freeman know, that government fails, and fails so persistently. One factor is the role of incentives. In many ways, government’s goal is to fail, or at least not to succeed so much as to eliminate the problem, thereby eliminating the perceived need for a government program.

Further, politics is concerned about intentions rather than results. If you want to raise people’s incomes, the minimum wage sounds like a good policy. You have to understand economics to realize that artificially hiking wages prices labor out of the market and thereby throws people out of work. But then, understanding economics was never a requirement for holding public office.

Even politicians who care about results are at a disadvantage, since the political system can never accumulate the same amount of information reflected in market processes, nor flexibly meet people’s needs. The international price of a barrel of oil alone incorporates more information than is contained in every file and on every computer disk at the Department of Energy in Washington. And even the largest oil company can change its policy more quickly than can the federal government.

Finally, in the end, cooperation rather than coercion, the hallmark of government, is the best means of solving most problems. Threatening people with jail can gain compliance with a rule, but not assistance in meeting a goal. Yet, as business realizes, a shared commitment to a particular end is far more likely to yield beneficial results for everyone involved.

There’s another reason that government fails so abjectly today, however. And that is because the cause of many of our worst problems is moral rather than political. Drug abuse is fundamentally an issue of the human spirit. Rising illegitimacy rates and family disintegration result from poor values, not inadequate programs. Crime grows out of immorality, not poverty. The ubiquitous refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions—instead suing anyone in sight, demanding government aid irrespective of cause, and blaming everyone else for individual failure—is a moral issue.

Looking Beyond Politics

While there have been some bizarre discussions in Washington about the politics of meaning, few people really believe that government can offer a substitute for morality. Rather, most people understand that we need to look beyond politics to civil society for answers.

That means, first, a commitment to do right in one’s dealings with family, friends, neighbors, and business associates. The best place to model family values is within one’s own family. Public officials can help lead, but only if they walk the walk. That is, criticism of, say, family breakup needs to grow out of a genuine concern for children rather than reflect a desire for political advantage.

A commitment to civil society also means teaching values to the young. But not the values that emanate from a political process characterized by dishonesty and demagoguery. In education, in particular, the best government can do is get out of the way. Indeed, many urban schools can neither protect students’ physical safety nor teach them to read, let alone impart moral values. Only by empowering parents to control their children’s education can we prepare future generations to be good citizens.

Moreover, our society will flourish only so long as people organize to solve problems around them. Churches, for instance, have proved to be a powerful tool not only for transforming people’s lives, but also providing those in need with practical tools to escape poverty and despair. Yet the growth of government has encouraged many churches to lobby for more public programs before working to alleviate problems directly. As religious charities have become hooked on the government dole, many have lost the spiritual focus that made them successful in the first place.

Unfortunately, we can never do away with politics, since some problems require collective action through the one social institution that can coerce. But growing public frustration with politicians suggests that people may be finally recognizing that the inherent flaws in political society are so great that we should limit what we ask government to do. If government can’t keep the streets safe, how can it mold souls and brighten our futures? We must take responsibility for such tasks ourselves, in cooperation with those around us through the marvelously complex matrix of human association that naturally arises outside of politics.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.