July/August 1996

The Hubris of Politics

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), reflecting on his presidential campaign, writes in the Washington Post, "I argued for a ban on assault weapons, for which I see no legitimate social purpose."

Leave aside the substance of the specific issue and consider the sweeping audacity of "for which I see no legitimate social purpose." One might well ask, Who appointed Senator Lugar the arbiter of what can be sold in the United States? And how many of the millions of products for sale could be determined to have a "legitimate social purpose"? Cigarettes? Electric toothbrushes? Jolt Cola? Copies of It Takes a Village? Most products have a private, not a social, purpose. The food and clothes that I buy serve my needs, not society's.

Senator Lugar's statement is a perfect example of the mentality people develop after too many years in public office. They seem to think that every opinion of theirs should be made law and enforced by the police.

Lugar is hardly unique. The day after his article ran in the Post, the Senate Banking Committee held hearings on a bill, sponsored by Chairman Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) along with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and others, that would prohibit banks from charging fees to noncustomers who use their automatic teller machines. Senator D'Amato says, "Congress should not condone ATM surcharging" (his emphasis). He seems to believe that Congress must roam across America, looking for immoral activities that cannot be condoned — like providing people a useful service for a price — because Congress has some sort of moral responsibility for every activity in our society.

Again, consider the presumptuousness of such a bill and the relative contributions of banks and senators to our lives. Civil society, hampered at every turn by petty political rules, takes thousands of years to develop the technology, the complex market mechanisms, and the levels of trust necessary for individuals to be able to get cash, at midnight, in an airport or a 7-Eleven thousands of miles from home, from a bank that they do no other business with — and members of Congress decide that the bank shouldn't be able to charge a dollar for that service. Imagine what kind of banking services we'd have if we had to wait for Congress to develop the necessary institutions, and then imagine what we might have if Congress got entirely out of the business of controlling, hamstringing, and bullying banks.

Too many people in Washington think nothing happens — or should happen — in America except at their behest. In their own minds, political society has entirely replaced civil society. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in 1992, "The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America" — conveniently forgetting the market process that has brought us such changes as the train, the skyscraper, the automobile, the personal computer, and charitable or self-help endeavors from settlement houses to Alcoholics Anonymous to Comic Relief.

This disease has infected too many people in our society. The "Mini Page," a Sunday supplement for children distributed in many newspapers, urged children recently, "Look through your paper for problems the country is facing. Which Cabinet members do you think might help solve them?" It might have done better to ask, "Which Cabinet members do you think caused the problems?" But the real mistake here is thinking that all problems have a political solution. In fact, most of the social problems that people have faced throughout history have been ameliorated or solved through the voluntary workings of civil society and the market process. We didn't relieve ourselves of the burden of backbreaking labor, or bring the world closer together through a series of transportation revolutions, by passing laws; we worked, saved, invested, and created economic progress. Even if a particular goal was achieved by people on a government payroll, it was only the wealth produced by private individuals that allowed government to undertake the project — and we should always consider what that money might have accomplished had it been spent voluntarily by those who produced it.

Critics of the welfare state are often charged with wanting "to tear down government programs and put nothing in their place." But what kind of political philosophy is it that looks at the vibrancy of America and sees "nothing" except what the government does?

Hillary Clinton's philosophy, apparently. The First Lady said recently, "This is an ominous time for those of us who care for the arts in America. A misguided, misinformed effort to eliminate public support for the arts not only threatens irrevocable damage to our cultural institutions but also to our sense of ourselves and what we stand for as a people." A similar argument was made in the conservative Weekly Standard in a cover article by Joseph Epstein titled "Why, Despite Everything, Republicans Should Not Abandon the Arts." But whatever Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Epstein may think, no one is proposing to "abandon" the arts. Some Republicans are proposing that of the $37 billion spent on the arts in the United States (according to the American Arts Alliance), the $167 million that is coercively extracted from taxpayers should be eliminated. Who could view such a cut as "threatening irrevocable damage" — except someone who looks at the bounty of civil society and sees a barren wasteland enlightened only by the activities of the federal government?

Every morning's newspaper — at least if your morning newspaper is the Washington Post — is filled with the pronouncements of politicians and policy wonks on what people should be forced to do to make this a better world. The denizens of political society should develop a little humility and a little appreciation of what people achieve through voluntary cooperation, if only politicians will let them.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.