Politics Matters Less than Ideas

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My youngest daughter, Abby, is graduating from college in a month. So like most university seniors, she’s been in the throes of a job search. After an interview in Boston two Fridays ago, she was sitting at a gate in Logan Airport waiting for a flight to D.C. (She still likes to visit her parents!) When the aircraft arrives, who should alight from it but Elizabeth Warren. As she walks through the gate area, the waiting passengers proceed to stand up and give her an ovation, calling out, “Thank you, Senator!” and “We love you, Senator!” Oh, boy. I’m proud to say Abby’s voice was dripping with disdain when she told me this story. And, no, she didn’t join in the ovation.

How I wish people — of all political and ideological persuasions — wouldn’t have such misplaced faith in politicians. One of the great lessons I learned from Cato, in my many years as a donor, is that it’s the power and advancement of ideas that will create positive change in our world and build a free and prosperous society. The outcome of elections and the machinations of politicians alone won’t do it. And so much of our politics is partisan tribalism: both Democrats and Republicans support elected officials of their respective party even when they abdicate on issues that would appear core to that party.

I have plenty of Republican friends who defended George Bush for years despite the out-of-control spending and growth of government under his administration, including initiatives that would have left them outraged had a Democratic president been responsible. Steel tariffs, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and TARP are just a few examples.

And where are the angry Democrats protesting the sorry civil liberties record of the Obama administration? PATRIOT Act abuses such as national security letters and warrantless eavesdropping or data collection got them exercised when Bush was president — today, their silence is deafening. And partisans on each side seem to believe in “executive power for me, but not for thee....” There have been frightening grabs of presidential power under each of the last two administrations. This has elicited complaints from both sides of the aisle: but, with few exceptions, from the left only of Bush, and from the right only of Obama.

As believers in markets, we know people respond to incentives. If partisan voters don’t insist that the people whom they elect adhere to principle, why would they? As a result, no matter which party holds power, the results are similar: too much spending, too much regulation, an unbridled Federal Reserve, a bias toward military intervention, and too little respect for civil liberties. In fact, a friend of Cato’s once shared a brilliant analogy. During campaigns, we hear from the marketing departments of each party, and they sound very different. But with a handful of key exceptions we get similar results when they’re in power: he speculated that they must each outsource to the same place when governing!

And let’s not have too much faith that simply pitching bad leaders overboard will change things dramatically for the better. Last summer, we were paid a visit here at Cato by Kim Kataguiri, an impressive and courageous 20-year-old Brazilian who has catalyzed the protests against President Dilma Rousseff and the drive for her impeachment. It will be wonderful to see a corrupt and ineffective leader get the comeuppance she deserves. But the vice president faces corruption charges, too, so his ascension wouldn’t likely change much. Rather, it will take a change of values to transform Brazil and allow it to reach its potential.

Politics is ultimately a necessary ingredient for the world to move in the direction we want. But a country and a world steeped in liberty can’t be accomplished politically without changing the terms of the debate and the climate of ideas: precisely Cato’s role. Scott Rasmussen once spoke at a Cato event, and contended that politicians only follow — and don’t lead — the rest of the country. It is the very contempt in which citizens hold the political class that made him optimistic about the future despite the current policy environment. It’s our job to continue making the compelling case for freedom through the media, in the academy, and to the policy community. Our objective is to lead policymakers in the direction of liberty. Only when they get there will they deserve ovations.