Don’t Look for "Grown-Ups" in Government


With the government partially closed for over two weeks now and the debt-ceiling deadline upon us, the pundits are demanding that the “grown-ups in the room” finally put a stop to the childish goings-on in Washington.

That would be nice — except there are no grown-ups in the room. If you seek evidence, just look around. Politicians, from President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Speaker John Boehner on down, operate at a level of irresponsibility that we don’t tolerate in children. It’s the nature of government.

Let’s start with the money politicians spend: Like children, they don’t have to earn it. It comes to them without effort. But unlike children, they have others take it by force through taxation. If you don’t believe me, tell the IRS “no thank you” the next time it calls for donations.

If they aren’t satisfied with the proceeds from taxation, politicians have unlimited power to borrow money, which makes government look less expensive than it is while sending the bill to future generations. Politicians make a show of imposing a limit on borrowing, but they can raise the limit at will, threatening dire consequences if they don’t.

Behold the gross irresponsibility. The money keeps flowing to the politicians no matter what they do or how big and costly their blunders. Even if people knew how badly the political class screwed up, they couldn’t cut them off without risking lives of misery and perhaps prison at the hands of the government’s armed henchmen.

But it’s even worse, because people untrained in the economic way of thinking will have difficulty tracing bad consequences to the politicians’ bad decisions. If you’re an unemployed unskilled worker, you may not realize that politicians who passed the minimum wage are responsible for pricing you out of a job. Similarly, if you’d like to escape wage employment and work for yourself, you might not realize that politicians have placed a dozen tollgates on the road to self-employment as a favor to special interests.

Tracing economic effects to their public-policy causes is no easy matter. It requires economic understanding, which most people lack. Politicians take advantage of this, such as when they blame rising consumer prices on greed rather than on their central bank’s inflationary policies. They have a thousand ways to cover their tracks.

Again, behold the irresponsibility this engenders. If you knew you had a guaranteed flow of income no matter what you did, you might conduct yourself very differently from how you conduct yourself now. As Lord Acton famously said, power tends to corrupt. It also attracts the corrupt.

Politicians also fail to operate at a responsible adult level to the extent they believe society can be molded according to their whims. Societies aren’t made of clay. They are complex networks of interaction among individuals using their particular knowledge in pursuit of their personal goals. Social engineering is people manipulation backed by force, which requires a level of hubris that no mature person would possess. Yet politicians engage in it every day, free of responsibility for the consequences that come from disrupting people’s lives.

Some readers will want to contest my claim that politicians are essentially unaccountable. Don’t they face the voters regularly, and doesn’t that keep them on the straight and narrow? To see the answer, we must get beyond naïve civics-book analysis.

We’ve already seen how the obscure path from political cause to economic effect helps to shield politicians from accountability. But that isn’t all. Even though politicians’ decisions can cost people their jobs, their freedom, and, in the aggregate, billions of dollars — think of the housing and financial debacle, which resulted from bad political decisions — what’s the worst that can happen to the officeholders responsible for a disaster? At most they might lose the next election. Oh the horror! On the other hand, incumbents have great advantages in elections and don’t often lose. Can you sue politicians for damages? Can you prosecute them for theft? Of course not. So where is the real accountability? There is none.

The upshot is that politicians are more irresponsible than children — children don’t have credit cards. So if you’re looking for grown-ups, look anywhere but government.

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).


Sheldon Richman keeps the blog “Free Association” and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxembourg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving
Joseph Grosso
The Enduring Tragedy: Guatemala’s Bloody Farce
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Imperial Myths: the Enduring Lie of the US’s Origin
Ralph Nader
The Joys of Solitude: a Thanksgiving!

Joseph G. Ramsey
Something to be Thankful For: Struggles, Seeds…and Surprises
Dan Glazebrook
Turkey Shoot: the Rage of the Impotent in Syria
Andrew Stewart
The Odious President Wilson
Colin Todhunter
Corporate Parasites And Economic Plunder: We Need A Genuine Green Revolution
Rajesh Makwana
Ten Billion Reasons to Demand System Change
Joyce Nelson
Turkey Moved the Border!
Richard Baum
Hillary Clinton’s Meager Proposal to Help Holders of Student Debt
Sam Husseini
A Thanksgiving Day Prayer
November 25, 2015
Jeff Taylor
Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism
Dana E. Abizaid
Provoking Russia
Oliver Tickell
Syria’s Cauldron of Fire: a Downed Russian Jet and the Battle of Two Pipelines
Patrick Cockburn
Trigger Happy: Will Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet Backfire on NATO?
Robert Fisk
The Soothsayers of Eternal War
Russell Mokhiber
The Coming Boycott of Nike
Ted Rall
Like Father Like Son: George W. Bush Was Bad, His Father May Have Been Worse
Matt Peppe
Bad Policy, Bad Ethics: U.S. Military Bases Abroad
Martha Rosenberg
Pfizer Too Big (and Slippery) to Fail
Yorgos Mitralias
Bernie Sanders, Mr. Voutsis and the Truth Commission on Greek Public Debt
Jorge Vilches
Too Big for Fed: Have Central Banks Lost Control?
Sam Husseini
Why Trump is Wrong About Waterboarding — It’s Probably Not What You Think
Binoy Kampmark
The Perils of Certainty: Obama and the Assad Regime
Roger Annis
State of Emergency in Crimea
Soud Sharabani
ISIS in Lebanon: An Interview with Andre Vltchek
Thomas Knapp
NATO: This Deal is a Turkey