Throw the ras­cals out?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Thomas Sow­ell

Polls in­di­cate that the pub­lic is so dis­gusted with Wash­ing­ton politi­cians of both par­ties that a sur­pris­ingly large pro­por­tion of the peo­ple would like to get rid of the whole lot of them.

It is cer­tainly un­der­stand­able that the vot­ers would like to “throw the ras­cals out.” But there is no point in throw­ing the ras­cals out, if we are just go­ing to get a new set of ras­cals to re­place them.

In other words, we need to think about what there is about cur­rent po­lit­i­cal prac­tices that re­peat­edly bring to power such a coun­ter­pro­duc­tive set of peo­ple. Those we call “pub­lic ser­vants” have in fact be­come pub­lic mas­ters. And they act like it.

They squan­der ever more vast amounts of our tax money, and still leave tril­lions of dol­lars of na­tional debt to be paid by our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. They in­trude into our pri­vate lives with ever more re­stric­tions, red tape and elec­tronic sur­veil­lance. And they turn dif­fer­ent groups of Amer­i­cans against each other with class war­fare rhetoric and poli­cies.

None of this is in­evitable. In fact, this pat­tern is largely the cul­mi­na­tion of po­lit­i­cal trends set in mo­tion dur­ing the 1930s, and reach­ing a cli­max to­day. Dur­ing the 1920s, the na­tional debt was re­duced and the role of gov­ern­ment scaled back. Un­em­ploy­ment went as low as 1.8 per­cent.

Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge, with ev­ery prospect of be­ing re­elected in 1928, de­clared sim­ply: “I do not choose to run.” Later, in his mem­oirs, he ex­plained how dan­ger­ous it is to have any­one re­main too long in the White House, sur­rounded by flat­tery and in­su­lated from re­al­ity. What a con­trast that at­ti­tude is with the at­ti­tude of the cur­rent occupant of the White House!

The con­trast ex­tends be­yond th­ese two pres­i­dents. What we have to­day that we did not have in the early his­tory of this coun­try is a per­ma­nent po­lit­i­cal class in Wash­ing­ton — a Congress and an ever grow­ing fed­eral bu­reau­cracy com­posed of peo­ple who have be­come a per­ma­nent rul­ing class.

The United States was not founded by ca­reer politi­cians but by peo­ple who took time out from their reg­u­lar pro­fes­sions to serve dur­ing a cru­cial time in the cre­ation of a new na­tion, and a new kind of na­tion in a world ruled by kings and em­per­ors.

In the nine­teenth cen­tury, there was a high rate of turnover in mem­bers of Congress. Many peo­ple went to Wash­ing­ton to serve one term in Congress, then re­turned to their home state to re­sume their lives as pri­vate cit­i­zens.

The rise of the per­ma­nent po­lit­i­cal class in Wash­ing­ton came with the rise of a vast gov­ern­ment ap­pa­ra­tus with un­prece­dented amounts of money and power to con­trol and cor­rupt in­di­vid­u­als, in­sti­tu­tions and the fab­ric of the whole so­ci­ety.

The first gi­ant steps in this di­rec­tion were taken in the 1930s, when the Great De­pres­sion pro­vided the ra­tio­nale for a rad­i­cally ex­panded role of gov­ern­ment that Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and his fol­low­ers had be­lieved in be­fore there was a Great De­pres­sion.

There are now peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton whose en­tire adult lives have been spent in gov­ern­ment, in one role or another. Some be­gin as aides to politi­cians or as part of the sprawl­ing em­pires of the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy. From this they progress to high elec­tive or ap­pointed of­fices in gov­ern­ment.

Turnover in Congress has been re­duced al­most to the van­ish­ing point. Po­lit­i­cal al­liances within gov­ern­ment and with out­side spe­cial in­ter­ests, as well as the ger­ry­man­der­ing of Con­gres­sional dis­tricts, make most in­cum­bents’ re­elec­tion vir­tu­ally a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

The abil­ity to dis­trib­ute vast amounts of largess to vot­ers, at the tax­pay­ers’ ex­pense — Pres­i­dent Obama’s giv­ing away free cell phones dur­ing an elec­tion year be­ing just the tip of the ice­berg — fur­ther tilts the bal­ance in fa­vor of in­cum­bents.

This kind of gov­ern­ment must con­stantly “do some­thing” in or­der to keep in­cum­bents’ names in the news. In short, big gov­ern­ment has ev­ery in­cen­tive to cre­ate big­ger gov­ern­ment.

Throw­ing the ras­cals out will not get rid of this po­lit­i­cal pat­tern. The first step in lim­it­ing, and then scal­ing back, gov­ern­ment it­self must be lim­it­ing the time that any­one can re­main in of­fice — prefer­ably lim­ited to one term, to make it harder to be­come ca­reer politi­cians, a species we can well do with­out.

Thomas Sow­ell is a se­nior fel­low at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion, Stan­ford Univer­sity. His web­site is www.tsow­ell.com.

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