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Monday, January 1, 2001

Why All the Con Artistry?

Donald Boudreaux is president of FEE.

Presumably the 2000 election is now history. This month, a new resident will move into America’s premier public-housing project, and a new Congress—made up mostly of leftovers from past Congresses—will be gaveled into action. Now’s a good time to reflect on the nature of modern politics.

When I lived near Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s, I often heard a radio commercial that was unfailingly irritating. The announcer had one of those “I’m-the-world’s-most-folksy-and-friendly-guy” voices. He spoke of a coalition of corporations that annually brings hundreds of high-school students to Washington “so that they can see democracy in action!” He intoned these words as if he were announcing that the lucky youngsters were being given a rare key to radiant truth and eternal bliss. The background music re-inforced the loftiness of bringing students to gaze upon the seat of national power.

Of course, touring Washington is utterly unrevealing of the real nature of the place and its product. Gazing upon that city’s monuments and public proceedings taking place on Capitol Hill is not to gaze upon evidence of modern democracy’s logic; instead, it is to gaze upon props and stage plays. All that is on display in Washington is meant to convey a false sense of what transpires there. It’s meant to con the public into believing that the politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists who toil there are working for some grand and noble purpose—for “the People” or “society” or “the common good.” But it’s a lie.

Politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists do toil. But they toil not for “the People” so much as for themselves and politically powerful interest groups. Together, they’re ticks on taxpayers and consumers. How else to explain government subsidies to corporations to advertise their products abroad? Or government’s paying farmers not to grow food? Or government’s use of civil asset-forfeiture? Or the Gestapo-esque tactics often employed by bureaucrats to enforce environmental statutes?*

* For a detailed account of Washington’s predations during the 1990s, see James Bovard, Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Use of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).


Many readers of even this magazine will accuse me of being excessively harsh. But I stand by it.

Think about it. Free your mind of the romantic daze created by political pomp, grandiose job titles, and soaring marble monuments. Recognize that probably no one with power in Washington knows you personally. No one there has ever offered a whit of his own time or money to assist you when you needed a hand. If tomorrow you were to suffer an agonizing death, no one in Washington would grieve. Your misfortune would cause no representative, no senator, no president, no bureaucrat to lose a bite of appetite or a moment of sleep.

Such nonreaction is hardly what you expect from people who truly feel deep affection for you.

And yet politicians and bureaucrats routinely trumpet their heartfelt concern for your welfare. Indeed, as you think about it, you’ll realize that these people boast that they are more concerned about your welfare than are your loved ones, your friends, or even you yourself. Their rhetoric is a torrent of promises to assist you in ways that no one else reliably will. Each candidate and officeholder assures you that he is that exceptional human being whose principal purpose in life is to help you and other strangers to achieve greater happiness—and that he, despite having never met you, somehow has unique knowledge about just how to make your life better.

Why are so many otherwise sensible people deluded by this humbug? Each of us would slam the door on any nonpolitician stranger who showed up at our home to announce that he’s our servant—that he possesses singular insight into our preferences and circumstances—that if we only trust him with large chunks of our wealth and liberty, he will use this wealth and power, not for his own purposes, but for ours. Why isn’t every politician accorded the same dismissive treatment that we give to other con artists?

Skeptics of my analysis will argue that politicians aren’t con artists because people choose them in elections. But this common refrain is weak. All con artists are “chosen” by their victims because all con artists persuade their victims to trust them. That’s the nature of con artistry. What is it about political settings that lower so many people’s guard against con artistry?

I believe there’s an answer. It’s the fact that each vote is inconsequential. By “inconsequential” I mean that no voter incurs any material cost or receives any material benefit as a consequence of how he votes. Many voters get psychic satisfaction from casting a ballot for Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith (or against Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith). But for each individual voter, the material consequences of yanking lever A or B or C are non-existent. What the government will do after the election is independent of how any one voter votes.

The consequence of vote-inconsequentialism is that each voter has an inadequate personal stake in voting wisely. Vote-inconsequentialism encourages massive carelessness and imprudence in voting booths. The way is paved for con artists to achieve political power.

Compare voting to private decision-making. If a stranger taps on your shoulder proclaiming his great affection for you and yours, and promises that, in exchange for a large portion of your money and a great deal of power over you, he will improve your welfare, health, and happiness, you pay him no heed. You immediately recognize him as a scammer. The reason is that you’re in control. Your reaction matters. Your reaction—and your reaction alone—directly and unconditionally affects the outcome. If you succumb to the scammer’s charms, you’ll suffer. If, instead, you tell him no, you protect your wealth and liberty. The decision is yours and yours alone. Therefore, you have powerful incentives to act wisely.

In private settings, con artistry is checked by each individual’s incentives to avoid being conned. Scams happen, of course, but the immense majority of private exchanges and relationships are on the level because each person makes individual choices; private choices are consequential. Private choices matter. Businesspeople who treat customers as dupes are fast run into bankruptcy.

In political settings, though, con artistry is the norm. This outcome is just what we should expect from a system of making decisions collectively and in which constitutional fetters on government power are frayed.

Behind all the marble and pageantry in Washington is nothing more than a cabal of con artists out to rob innocent people of their wealth and liberties. Let’s be on better guard against them.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.