America: Down the Drain and Caught in the Greece Trap

January/​February 2013 • Policy Report

Ladies and gentlemen, I just love being in New York City. The capital of the free world. The Statue of Liberty! Huddled masses! I lift my lamp beside the golden door! Yes, freedom is what New York is all about.

Well, I was just out in the lobby drinking a 32 oz. Big Gulp, smoking a cigar, sprinkling salt on my extra large, triple cheese, meat lover’s pizza — and I have to ask: What is that yappy Miniature Schnauzer of a mayor going to ban next? Why not just ban everything that’s bad for people — like watching Bloomberg Business channel? That was pretty bad for me. I got right in on that Facebook IPO…

Or is it just our physical health that the mayor is worried about? If that’s the case, he better ban voting for Democrats — otherwise Obamacare is going to kick in and health care will cost nothing. And when something costs nothing, trust me, it’s worth it.

To hell with you, Mayor Bloomberg, and to hell with politics. People have a tendency to believe that the Cato Institute is a political think tank. It’s not. It’s an anti‐​political think tank. We’re not here today to fix politics — well, I take that back. We are here to “fix” politics — the way you fix a cat. The way you spay a dog. The way you castrate a dangerous bull. We mean to tame these political sons of bitches. We are going to teach them not to beg at the table. We’re going to teach them not to bark at the moon.

We’re going to teach them to heel and come when they’re called. We’re going to teach them domestic policy: Stay off the furniture! No politics in my bed! We’re going to teach them foreign policy: Stop making messes in other people’s yards! We’re going to teach them to roll over and play dead, because we’re going to give them a lesson on term limits. When we toss our political power to a politician, he is going to bring that political power right back here and drop it at our feet. Good boy! Now back in the kennel.

It isn’t going to be easy to housebreak this political mess. The floors of both houses in Congress are going to have to be covered with a lot of newspaper. (But not the editorial section of the New York Times. We don’t want our political puppies reading that stuff.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to win this fight. It won’t be simple. It won’t be quick. And we’re going to lose a lot of battles along the way. But eventually, voters go back to work — and they find that their paychecks are being taxed to hell, their jobs and business opportunities are being regulated away, and their hopes for the future are being tied to the millstone of the federal deficit. Then they remember that government is all taking and no making. And that’s why we will win this fight. But only if we keep fighting.

People know that politicians are thieves. People know that politicians are liars. But we nevertheless have to continue leading the charge. We have to remind people how politicians are thieves and when politicians are liars. We have to pass the ammunition so that people can take aim at the theft and the lies. Our duty is to help our fellow citizens realize in their minds what they already know in their guts. Take just one example. Everybody knows that the government costs too much. But thanks to two of our patron saints, we’re able to explain why government costs too much.

More than 30 years ago, in their book Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman used a very simple graph to show that, mathematically, there are only four ways in which money can be spent.

First, your money can be spent on yourself. Let’s take cars, for instance. Twenty years ago, I bought a Porsche 911. It’s a wonderful car — I still have it — and I got a great deal at the time from a dentist who scared himself with it and bought a Lexus coupe instead. When you spend your money on yourself, you get as nearly as you can exactly what you want. More importantly, you bargain hard to get it. Second, your money can be spent on other people. Now, you may still bargain hard under these circumstances. But you’re not quite as concerned about getting exactly what you wanted — although I’m sure my wife is very fond of the GeoTracker that I got for her and the kids.

Third, other people’s money can be spent on yourself. With those parameters, I’m on the fence between an Aston Martin DBS coupe that goes for $300,000 and a Maserati GranTurismo convertible, which is a steal at $145,000. In the final scenario, you’re not involved at all. You’re spending other people’s money on other people. It’s not your dime, and there’s nothing in it for you. It might as well be “Billions for Jack,” or as the government called it, “Cash for Clunkers.” By the way, number four is the way all government programs work.

Everybody knows government costs too much and everybody knows government shouldn’t be given too much power. But people forget why. Government should not be given too much power because it has a special kind of power — a comic book supervillain type of power. The political system has a monopoly on the use of deadly force. That deadly force can be brought to bear upon you for any violation of even the most trivial, the most picayune government regulation. If you fall afoul of recycling rules, you’ll get a citation from the sanitation department. If you don’t pay the fine, you’ll be sent to jail. And if you escape from jail, they’ll shoot you. You could be executed for failing to separate the green plastic from the clear plastic in your trash. Now do you think we should give more power to politicians who would do a thing like that?

One of the core principles of libertarianism is that the world is not zero‐​sum. We can make more things. We can make more money, more food, more energy, more babies. The way I get things is by making them, not by President Obama taking them from you to give to me.

Politics, on the other hand, is zero‐​sum. There’s a fixed amount of political power because there’s a fixed amount of me. And the political power that you hold over me — because you’re holding me at gunpoint — is obviously power that I lose to you. People know they’re losing their power to the political system and they don’t like it. But it’s still a big temptation to give more power to that government.

Why? American government is a huge tool — mighty in its operation, nearly irresistible in its movement. Never mind that it doesn’t know where it’s going. It is tempting to use a tool of this nature when something needs fixing. But the problem is that people don’t stop to ask whether the tool suits the task. There is something in the human psyche — and, if I may say, particularly in the male psyche — that just loves big tools. Possessed of a big tool, a man feels a compulsion to use it. We don’t need to get rude for examples. Give a man a high‐​powered cordless electric drill, and you’ll get holes all over your house.

In the 1940s, shortly after that enormous tool — the atomic bomb — had been employed on the Japanese, there was a serious proposal in Congress to use atomic bombs to blast a new sea‐​level canal through the Isthmus of Panama. Men are dangerous when they have big tools. Power of any kind — government power in particular — is dangerous. To put the case differently, the government is a Rottweiler ready to be unleashed on your problems — and you’ve stuffed raw meat down the front of your pants.

One method of being careful with government power is to think about the government the same way we think about our messy personal lives. There are furious exspouses and bitter former lovers and various outstanding child support judgments. And we don’t want too much of that in one place, which is why we’re moving to Phoenix. The Founding Fathers knew enough about messy personal lives — Jefferson in particular — to make sure that the Constitution contained federalist decentralization of power. They set up a system in which each branch of the government would check and balance the other branches.

After all, what if all the ex‐​spouses and the former lovers and the kids whose school fees we’re supposed to be paying all became friends — and then got the same lawyer? Our Founding Fathers would have rather moved to Phoenix than let something like that happen. It’s important for as much of government power as possible to be distributed to the smallest possible units of government — the states, counties, cities, towns, and townships.

John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire, had a good way of explaining this concept. He’s an engineer — and he compares reliance on local government to a goal of mechanical engineering known as “short control loops.”

The hot and cold faucets on your shower are part of a short control loop. But, instead of them being located in the shower stall, imagine if they were located down in the basement. That would be a long control loop. It’s not that a short control loop always works — you may be out of hot water. But it’s better to stand there in the shower fiddling with a useless faucet than to march naked and dripping through the house — amazing the children and shocking the cleaning lady — down two flights of stairs and into the grungy basement to fiddle with a useless faucet down there.

If our neighbor on the local sewer commission votes to raise our sewer rates, we can go next door and yell at him or stuff a potato up the tailpipe of his car. But stuffing a potato up the tailpipe of the limousine of the president of the United States, that’s a federal crime — or, at least, they’ll make it one if I try.

Despite the common sense of the short control loop argument, we’re often deaf to it. When something’s wrong, we don’t consult the sewer commissioner next door — even if the problem is backed up sewage. We go straight to Washington, and we even bypass the House and the Senate. We expect the president himself to take time off from trying to get his limo started and come over to our house with a plunger.

The expense of politics, the surrender of individual power to politics, the gross inefficiency of politics — it’s all bad. But nothing is as bad as the brain of a politician. Now, you might say, “What brain?” Alas, it’s worse than a joke. Taken one by one, politicians are of dull normal intelligence. But when you put politicians together in government you get “committees” — and in Congress they even come right out and call them “committees.”

We’ve all been on committees. We know what happens to intelligence and common sense when a person becomes a committee member. It’s “committee‐​brain.”

Let’s say you live in a neighborhood with a playground. The kids in the neighborhood would like to play tetherball, but the playground has no pole. So a committee is formed to raise funds for tetherball — the Committee to Raise Funds for Tetherball, or CRFT.

CRFT is started by a group of pleasant, enthusiastic, public‐​spirited neighbors. But the minute any of these neighbors become a member of CRFT, he or she will begin to express his or her pleasant, enthusiastic, public spirit by turning into one of the following characters.

The stickler: “We have to draw up a charter and form a nonprofit corporation with a chairman, a president, a vice president, a secretary, a treasurer, a development officer, and a human resources executive. And the tetherball pole has to be exactly four meters high in accordance with North American Amateur Tetherball Association rules.”

The dog in the manger: “We need to get permission from the county zoning board, the city council, the parks department, and the adjacent landowners who might complain about tetherball noise. Also, that part of the playground is too damp for tetherball — it might be federally protected wetlands. We can’t do any fundraising without advertising, and we can’t advertise without raising funds. By the way, the kids would rather have a tennis court.” The worrier: “Padded pole. Breakaway tether. Light‐​weight foam ball. Ban on playing after dark, when visibility is poor, and when the sun is shining, to avoid skin damage. Kids should wear helmets, knee pads, and safety belts.”

The person with ideas: “Let’s set up a challenge grant to erect a second tetherball pole in the inner city. Midnight tetherball could be an alternative to crime for deprived youth! We could also promote tetherball as a way to combat child obesity, which would make us eligible for funding from the Gates Foundation. We’ll have a tetherball league — no three! — adults, juniors, and tether tots. This could be a great Title IX addition. If our daughters are varsity level tetherball players, they’ll get into Yale.”

The person with ideas, none of which have to do with tetherball: “Is the tether biodegradable? Is the pole made from recycled materials? Many playground balls are manufactured in third world countries using exploitative child labor. Let’s be sure to utilize organic fertilizer and indigenous plant species when seeding the tetherball play area.”

The bossy person — who says the same thing as everybody else on the committee but louder. The person who won’t shut up — who says the same thing as everybody else on the committee but more often. The person who won’t show up — unless their vote is crucial in which case he or she shows up and votes the wrong way. And, of course, you. You actually do all of the work.

You call 40 people and ask them to donate $10. Half of them do and you raise the $200 needed — only to find out that you actually need $200,000. As it turns out, the House of Representatives Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, Select Committee on Opportunities in Physical Education, Subcommittee on Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance requires all tetherballs to be wheelchair accessible no matter how high the tetherballs fly in the air.

Given the complete dominance of politics by committees, the wonder is that anything gets done and the horror is that it does. What the government accomplishes is what you’d expect from a committee. “A camel is a horse designed by a committee” — that’s a saying that couldn’t be more wrong. A camel is a seeing‐ eye dog designed by a committee and available free with government grants to people who can see perfectly well but can’t walk.

Let it be our mission to show people the danger and the folly of letting their lives be run by committee. And let it be our mission to show people the danger and the folly of all the temptations and empty promises of a government so big and powerful that it can give everyone everything for free.