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Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Transforming the Political Marketplace

Politicians' Actions Tell Us Something About the Electorate

What we expect from our politicians goes a long way toward determining what kind of politicians we can expect to find in office. Just as suppliers compete by trying to please their customers, politicians compete by trying to please voters. Just as the features of cars tell us something about the preferences of car buyers, the actions of politicians tell us something about the electorate.

In the marketplace for cars, competition insures that the products mirror consumer tastes. Unfortunately, politicians have created barriers to entry that make political competition less vigorous than it might be. And voters do not bear the consequences of their choices with the same immediacy of car consumers. Still, the politicians who survive in office tell us something about ourselves.

We could, for example, expect our politicians to uphold the Constitution and maximize our ability to lead the lives we choose. After all, elected officials at the federal level swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

In contrast, we might expect our politicians to see their job as pleasing their constituents regardless of constitutional constraints. And because constituents are a diverse lot, the politician who wants to stay in office focuses on the most influential constituents.

Frederic Bastiat described the state as “the great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” Everyone may try, but only the politically powerful succeed. When the state is devoted to such efforts, what Bastiat called plunder, a peculiar sort of person succeeds in politics. No, not a thief, but a thief in saint’s clothing.

The political marketplace teems with those who sugarcoat redistribution with claims of helping the general public: “We need farm subsidies because the family farm is the backbone of this great nation.” A politician who can make that claim with a straight face has a much better chance of being elected than one who says, “I have a lot of friends who are farmers and when elected, I intend to make them rich using your money.”

Helping the District

In today’s political landscape, however, some politicians dip their hands into the treasury without invoking the legerdemain of the public good. It is not uncommon to read of a member of Congress making the case for his re-election on the grounds that he has successfully steered large amounts of so-called federal dollars into his district.

You would think he might be embarrassed to have taken money from neighboring districts and states merely to enhance, say, the roads of his constituents. But he’s actually proud of it. When he is called to task, his supporters have a quick justification: it’s his job to help his constituents.

His job? It’s his job to use the fiscal process to enrich A at B’s expense? I guess that oath of office is just for show. If the Constitution could weep, it would cry us a river.

We once lived in a different world.

We once, at least from time to time, had politicians who understood that the Constitution constrained their ability to spend the people’s money. One such man was Grover Cleveland. In his first Inaugural Address, in 1885, he said: “In the discharge of my official duty I shall endeavor to be guided by a just and unstrained construction of the Constitution, a careful observance of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people, and by a cautious appreciation of those functions which by the Constitution and laws have been especially assigned to the executive branch of the Government.”

Such language sounds quaint to our ears: a president promising to restrain himself based on higher principle. When push came to shove, Cleveland refused to budge from that principle. In 1887, when a drought hit Texas, a bill arrived on his desk providing funds to buy seeds for struggling Texas farmers. Who could oppose such a worthy cause?

Cleveland vetoed the bill and wrote the House of Representatives that “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and the duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.” Cleveland went on to explain to Congress that when the government got into the business of relieving suffering, it discouraged private efforts to fight hardship and hurt our character.

How would the voters of today describe such a veto? Heartless? An example of grid-lock? How the world has changed! A reluctance to spend other people’s money has become a vice rather than a virtue.

Notice that Cleveland said nothing about the morality of helping the farmers of Texas. He might have felt their cause to be just. But he could not justify federal intervention constitutionally. This narrow perspective reduces the potential for plunder. And one of the purposes of the Constitution is to limit even our honorable desires to alleviate suffering with the public’s money. Otherwise, the power of government grows and that of individuals falters.

It is tempting to say that Cleveland’s integrity and respect for his oath of office were politically courageous. Perhaps they were. He made plenty of enemies. But he was also popular with the voters. He managed to win the popular vote in three consecutive elections, his two terms book-ending an electoral college defeat. The voters of the late nineteenth century respected the Constitution and honored Grover Cleveland with their support.

If we want politicians who respect the Constitution, those of us who care about it will have to do a better job encouraging our fellow citizens to feel the same way. Then the politicians who will thrive in the political marketplace of the next millennium will be less interested in spending other people’s money and more interested in letting us make our own decisions about living life to the fullest.

FDA Contest

I want to thank all the readers who responded to the contest in my September column asking for your thoughts on a world without the FDA. The contest winners are Karen Kwiatkowski and David Calderwood. Both made a number of interesting points. Karen emphasized how the FDA politicizes the flow of information about the efficacy of drugs while David pointed out how the FDA suppresses information and undermines the nature of the doctor-patient relationship. Karen and David will each receive a $25 gift certificate to use at the FEE bookstore.

  • Russell Roberts the host of the weekly podcast, EconTalk and co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. His latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. He is also a John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at Stanford University"s Hoover institution.