All Commentary
Sunday, June 1, 1997

The Political Racket: Deceit, Self-Interest and Corruption in American Politics by Martin L. Gross

A Generally Sensible Account of the Interventionist State

Ballantine Books • 1996 • 263 pages • $12.50 paperback

Dr. Peterson is Heritage Foundation adjunct scholar and Distinguished Lundy Professor Emeritus of business philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina.

Martin Gross, whose title here tells it all, sifts through a lot of political dirt. He names names—including ethically challenged politicians and special-interest PAC contributors.

Mr. Gross also devotes many pages to the problem of pork—Congressional vote-trading on federal spending projects for favored spots and favored Congresspeople, including:

• $3 million for an Orlando, Florida, streetcar project

• $5 million for a third golf course at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C.

• $96 million for a courthouse in Portland, Oregon

• $120 million for a courthouse in Phoenix, Arizona

Impressive stuff all right, but if anything the Gross work is too parochial, too present-minded. Yes, smelly deals are cut all the time in that den of iniquity, Washington, D.C. But couldn’t that charge also be levied against Ottawa, Rome, Moscow, Nairobi, Brasilia, and virtually all other capitals? Or, for that matter, against Ancient Athens and Ancient Rome?

Hear Socrates, for example, c. 399 B.C.: If I had engaged in politics, O men of Athens, I should have perished long ago, and done no good either to you or to myself. Or hear Quintus Cicero, author of Handbook on Politics (c. 50 B.C.), which he prepared as an electioneering aid for his brother, Roman senator Marcus Cicero: One has great need of a flattering manner which, wrong and discreditable though it may be in other walks of life, is indispensable in seeking office. Human nature being what it is, all men prefer a false promise to a flat refusal.

I also wonder about the author’s multifaceted solution, what he calls a Middle-Class Manifesto, to America’s political mess. Some of his ideas merit consideration—for instance, term limits, a balanced budget amendment, elimination of $86 billion in annual corporate welfare through 127 federal subsidies to business, cutting back one-third of the federal civilian labor force to save $50 billion a year, and revamping Social Security along the privatizing lines of Chile with individual retirement accounts.

But Mr. Gross gums up a generally sensible book by complaining about high CEO salaries of $4, $5, even $10 or $15 million a year. CEO compensation is not a political problem. It is not a problem at all and bringing it up just encourages the redistributionists who constantly play on envy. He also objects to imports from low-wage countries such as Mexico and China, and thinks the United States should restrict Japanese imports at exactly the same level they do ours. The ideas of consumer sovereignty and unilateral free trade seem foreign to him.

Still, this informative and provocative work can instruct the wary reader who is so often the fellow pushed out of the loop, who is forced to pick up the tab for the Interventionist State, busily dispensing concentrated benefits over diffused costs. Yale economist William Graham Sumner in 1883 called this fellow the Forgotten Man. I call him Every Man.

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.