Commentary

The Arrogance of Politics

The Bible tells us that not a sparrow falls but that God knows about it. Some people in Washington think the federal government’s relationship with Americans should be just as all-encompassing.

The latest example is the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation of compact-disc prices. Did you know that CDs cost different amounts at different stores? Well, the FTC has noticed, and it’s very concerned.

Now it’s easy to point out that CDs cost more at full-service music stores like Tower Records and Sam Goody’s and less at discount stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. Of course, music stores carry a wider selection of CDs and even have clerks who know something about music. At Tower you can tell the clerk what you like, ask what else might appeal to you and then listen to a sample. Try asking a Wal-Mart clerk whether Aerosmith’s new CD is as good as the group’s classic albums. This distinction, obvious to most 16-year-olds, should not be too difficult for FTC lawyers to grasp.

But the real issue here is the sheer arrogance of Washington today. Too many people in the political class seem to think that every action in a nation of 260 million individuals is a proper subject for their attention. The FTC’s investigation is a perfect example, but it is hardly unique. 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 the concept: “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 would 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.

Or consider the bill sponsored by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., that would prohibit banks from charging fees to non-customers 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 activities that cannot be condoned — like providing people a useful service for a price —because Congress has some sort of responsibility for every activity in our society.

D’Amato’s bill is a good opportunity to think about 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.

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, not through government. We didn’t relieve ourselves of the burden of back-breaking 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 people on government payrolls achieve some noteworthy goals, it is only the wealth produced by civil society that allows government to undertake those projects — and we should always consider what that wealth might have accomplished had those who created it been allowed to use it.

Every morning’s newspaper is filled with the pronouncements of politicians and policy wonks on what people should be forced to do to make this a better world. Official Washington should develop a little humility and a little appreciation for what people achieve through voluntary cooperation, if only politicians let them. We can figure out where to buy CDs on our own, thank you.

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