Don’t Expect Much From Politics

(Note: Below is an edited version of a column Mackinac Center President Lawrence W. Reed wrote in December 2001 for his "Ideas and Consequences" column in The Freeman, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education.)

The older I get, and the more I learn from observing politics, the more obvious it is that it’s no way to run a business — or almost anything else, for that matter. The deficiencies, absurdities and perverse incentives inherent in the political process are powerful enough to frustrate anyone with the best and most altruistic of intentions. Politics frequently exalts ignorance and panders to it. A few notable exceptions aside, it tends to attract the most mediocre talent with motives that are questionable at best.

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Earlier this year, Max Kennedy, a son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, flirted with the idea of running for political office. A story in the July 15 New York Times Magazine recounted his ill-fated attempt at a stump speech riddled with trite one-liners like these: "I want to fight for all of you … I’ll commit myself heart and soul to be the kind of congressman who cares about you … I’ll dedicate myself to fighting for working families to have a fair chance … I make you this one pledge: I will always be there for you."

Kennedy’s handler pressed him repeatedly for a "take-away message," something of substance that his audience would remember. "What do you want people to take away from it?" he asked several different ways. The would-be candidate stammered and couldn’t think of much other than "I’m a nice guy" until finally he admitted, "I don’t know. Whatever it has to be."

Eligible for public office? Certainly, though in this case his campaign was over before it really began, and he has presumably found useful work elsewhere. Hundreds just like Max Kennedy get elected every year. But would it ever occur to you to put someone like this in charge of your business? Outside of politics, is there any other endeavor in which such nonsense is as epidemic?

Welcome to the silly side of politics. It’s characterized by no-speak, doublespeak, and stupid-speak, aimed at swaying minds without ever educating them, and deceiving them if necessary. The serious side of politics comes afterwards when the elected actually do something, even if — as is often the case — it bears little resemblance to what they promised. It is serious business in any case because that’s when coercion puts flesh on the rhetorical bones. What makes a politician a politician and differentiates politics from all other walks of life is that the politician’s words are backed up by his ability to deploy legal force.

This is not a trivial point. After all, in the grand scheme of life there are ultimately only two ways to get what you want or get others that have hired you (or who depend on you) what they want. You can rely on voluntary action (work, production, trade, persuasion and charity) or you can swipe. Exemplars of voluntary action are Mother Theresa, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, an author or the kid who delivers your newspaper. If you aren’t an elected or appointed government official and you swipe something, you’re a thief. If you are acting in the capacity of a government official and swipe something, you’re "appropriating."

No generation ever grasped the meaning of this better than that of America’s Founders. George Washington is credited with observing: "Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it can be a dangerous servant or a fearful master." In other words, even when government does its job so well as to be a true "servant," it’s still "dangerous."

Indeed, this point makes all the difference in the world. Things that rely upon the regular affirmation of voluntary consent don’t look at all like those that are forced. Whereas mutual consent encourages actual results and accountability, the political process puts a higher premium on the mere promise or claim of results and the shifting of blame to other parties.

To win or keep your patronage and support, a provider of goods or services must manufacture something of real value. A business that doesn’t produce or a charity that doesn’t meet a need will quickly disappear. To get your vote, a politician only has to look or sound better than the next one, even if both of them would renege on more pledges than they would keep. In the free marketplace, a potential customer can say "No, Thanks," and take a walk. In politics, the "customers" do not have that option.

Your vote in the marketplace counts for much more than your vote in the polling booth. Cast your dollars for the item of your choice and that’s what you get — nothing more and nothing less. Pull the lever for the politician of your choice and most of the time, if you’re lucky, you’ll get some of what you do want and much of what you don’t. And the votes of a special interest lobby may ultimately cancel yours out.

These important distinctions between voluntary, civil society and coercion-based government explain why in politics the Max Kennedy-types are the rule rather than the exception. Say little or nothing, or say silly things, or say one thing and do another — and your prospects of success may only be enhanced. When the customers are captives, the seller may just as easily be the one who whispers seductive nonsense in their ears as the one who puts something real on their plates.

Like it or not, people judge private, voluntary activities by a higher standard than they do public acts of the political process. That’s all the more reason to keep politics a small and isolated corner of our lives. We all have so many more productive things to which we should tend.


Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.