Topic: Government and Politics

Seen and Not Seen

The Washington Post Magazine had a detailed profile of the daily activities of freshman House member Joe Courtney (D-CT).

We learn that he spends much of his time raising campaign money, even though the next election is still 17 months ago.

More interesting is how a single business in his district, Electric Boat Corp., seems to dominate his time on Capitol Hill. He meets with the company, he lobbies Democratic Party bosses on the firm’s behalf, and he makes sure to ask questions in congressional hearings related to the company.

Electric Boat makes vessels for the Pentagon and employs 6,000 in Courtney’s Connecticut district. That’s a lot of people, but there at 680,000 people in Courtney’s congressional district — what about all their interests? Does Courtney put any effort, for example, into keeping taxes low for the benefit of all the other thousands of businesses in his district?

The article reminded me of Frederic Bastiat’s “What is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” Unfortunately, most politicians focus only on the immediate, most simple, and most visible effects of government action, and don’t have the imagination or capacity for abstract thought to recognize the unseen but much larger effects of big government.

How do we fix this bias?

The Mikulski Principle

Politicians are circling around hedge funds like vultures. They want to raise taxes on hedge funds, maybe by treating their capital gains as normal income. Why? Because hedge funds are mysterious — do you know what they really do? — and they have a lot of money. Make billion-dollar profits, get headlines, attract taxers — it’s as certain as ants at a picnic.

There are whole books on the correct theory of taxation. I’ve always assumed that Democratic members of Congress operate on the theory most clearly enunciated in 1990 by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D, Md.):

Let’s go and get it from those who’ve got it.

There are many theories of taxation, such as Haig-Simons, the Tiebout model, and the Ramsay Principle. But I’d bet that the Mikulski Principle explains actual taxation best.

Ron Paul and the NBA

Ron Paul is the San Antonio Spurs of Congress.

Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise praises the resilience of the Spurs, who keep coming back to win the NBA championship without ever being quite a Bulls-style dynasty. He says the Spurs “had their crown taken away twice since 2003 and got it back both times.”

Similarly, Ron Paul is the only current member of Congress to have been elected three times as a non-incumbent. Given the 98 percent reelection rates for House members, it’s no great shakes to win three terms — or 10 terms — in a row. It’s winning that first one that’s the challenge. And Ron Paul has done that three times.

He first won in a special election for an open seat. He then lost his seat and won it back two years later, defeating the incumbent. After two more terms he left his seat to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate (and thereby did his greatest disservice to the American Republic, as his seat was won by Tom DeLay). Twelve years later, in 1996, after some redistricting, he ran again for Congress, again defeating an incumbent, this time in the Republican primary. Some political scientist should study the political skills it takes to win election to Congress without the benefit of incumbency — three times.

You’re Not the Boss of Me

A headline in the Los Angeles Times reads,

GOP senators getting visit from boss on immigration

And who is the boss of 49 Republican senators? Minority Leader Mitch McConnell? 50 million voters? No, the Times is referring to President Bush. Thankfully, the suggestion that the president is the “boss” of the Senate appears only in the headline, not in the text of the article. But even headline writers should remember that Congress is created by Article I of the Constitution, and the president by Article II.

The president is not the boss of the Congress. Nor is he the commander-in-chief of the United States, as Sen. John McCain has said. Small-r republicans need to keep reminding people that what Gene Healy calls “the bipartisan romance with the imperial presidency” is not rooted in the American system.

Republicans for Government-Run Health Care

First it was Mitt Romney supporting a HillaryCare-style health care reform in Massachusetts. Now Tommy Thompson, who as secretary of health and human services was responsible for the Medicare prescription drug debacle, is attacking Missouri governor Matt Blunt for cutting Medicaid spending. Thompson told the Associated Press that states should expand access to Medicaid because the federal government pays most of the cost.

Thompson apparently has not read Michael Cannon’s terrific paper, Medicaid’s Unseen Costs, that shows how increased Medicaid spending drives out private health insurance, increases dependency on government, and drives up costs.

With Republicans like this, who needs Democrats?

Live Free Or Not

NH sealIn this age of galloping leviathan, one cause for joy is New Hampshire’s continued willingness to thumb its nose at various dictates from Washington, D.C. In some cases, the state’s federalism obstinacy prohibits it from receiving Uncle Sam’s largess — a penalty that many Granite Staters consider a sign of honor.

But the joy of New Hampshire was muted a bit this spring when the state’s General Court (the legislature) flirted with giving up one of its most celebrated examples of recalcitrance— the refusal to adopt mandatory seat belt laws for adults. A bill mandating the wearing of seat belts made it through the state’s House of Representatives before stalling in a Senate committee. What’s more, proponents scored a victory by placing a “seat belt policy exploratory committee” rider on a completely unrelated piece of legislation.

The standard justification for seat belt laws — that government is looking out for your well-being — would have little truck in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire. So bill proponents tried a different tack; as noted in an AP story, they claimed that they’re simply looking out for the taxpayer:

“Live Free or Die would be great but you expect everyone to pay for you,” said Rep. Jennifer Brown, the bill’s prime sponsor. “The state has to pick up the medical bills and it could be for the rest of your life.”

State. Sen. Maggie Hassan said mandating seat belt usage is just as much about her rights as those who don’t like the idea.

“People like me who use my seat belt will wind up paying for people who don’t,” she said. “This is about my rights.”

Notice the strange conception of “rights” assumed by this argument: Because government offers a benefit, government — acting on behalf of “taxpayer rights” — can dictate people’s behavior because of the possibility that some people who engage in that behavior might use that benefit. (This is different than, say, work requirements for welfare — in that case, people choose to accept a benefit, and government is placing a condition on the receipt of that benefit.)

The slippery slope problem of such thinking is obvious. Because government provides an education benefit to children, can it mandate certain behaviors for adults of child-bearing age? Because government provides some health benefits, can it regulate everyone’s risk-taking behavior? Because government provides retirement benefits, can it dictate people’s employment decisions?

This should prompt good civil libertarians to look skeptically at any proposal to create or expand government benefits. Laocoon’s warning can be updated: Beware of politicians bearing benefits.