I’m writing this column on the night before the presidential election of 2012. Surely the attention of readers will be on the election tomorrow—and probably for some time thereafter. I’m praying for an early and decisive ending of this grotesque demonstration of avarice, deception, and manipulation of fears.
In the weeks prior to the election, Ramona and I met with friends and strangers in six states and DC. Everywhere we heard strong and serious complaints about electioneering. Specifically people were disturbed by: the size of investments in the campaign, the negativity of political ads, and the sleaze and duplicity of most candidates.
Also, the intrusion on people’s personal time by interruptions, especially at home, has become a major annoyance. This, the smallest of the problems, is likely to improve as people learn to better insulate themselves and handlers of candidates adapt their deliveries.
Why, many wondered, are citizens subjected to such abuse? The answers alas are quite simple. Let's take them in order. First, consider the huge size of investments in electioneering. Their size is a function of the scope and scale of government.
Governmental control of our economy and social relations continuously increases. Some naive or opportunistic people actually want ever more. Hence it is quite rational to invest in elections. This investment may be either offensive or defensive.
A note I received urging my vote expresses the defensive view quite well. “Obama wants to subsume ever greater sectors of the economy to the government, to make the people dependent on government and to undermine our freedom. 47 million people are now on food stamps; the government advertises for people to go on the dole. And, they provide the money now with a credit-card to take away the stigma.”
Many productive, tax-paying citizens are likely to share this position and find it a frightening specter. Alternatively, sincere and well-informed people may believe that due to changes in employment opportunities, and with the economy rigged in favor of the well connected and well off, only governmental intervention and allocation will enable many people to achieve middle class material status.
This fundamental conflict will not be settled this or any other election. No large diverse nation has yet rolled back an environment and culture of entitlements. My reading of history strongly suggests that Milton Friedman was correct when observing that: “The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.”
The negativity of ads is easy to explain. Most simply, they tend to work. They work because the cost of assessing ads is too high for most people. Further, they are based on decades of psychological research. Electoral campaigns are evolutionary events. Strategies that generate winners survive and are replicated. Slander is contagious. Alas, negatives associated with lies often win votes.
Increasing sleaze and duplicity among candidates is guaranteed when governments allocate wealth and preferential opportunities. Honesty is a huge liability when competing for votes. Most recipients of federal largess, especially those well off, deny their special favors. One does not gain support by explaining or reminding them of this.
Sen. Max Baucus’ defense of the sugar quota, a program that primarily benefits those who are quite well off, most notably cane producers in Florida, is a spectacular example of wealth transfers generated by politics.
It's hard to believe that someone who studied economics at Stanford could be sufficiently ignorant to believe that a law making U.S. sugar cost twice the world average poses no burden on taxpayers. (To be charitable, perhaps this is Max’s way to get Americans to cut down on sugar consumption. He surely recalls the slope of demand curves; when things cost more people consume less. Perhaps he is lying to voters to save them from excessive sugar consumption.)
Any adult who’s IQ exceeds her body temperature knows this: a federal government that borrows 40 percent of its expenditures is imposing a huge burden on the young and people yet to be born. Both parties participate, Republicans even more than Democrats. We live in an unsustainable entitlement fantasyland. This is the great truth unspoken by successful politicians. It would take an economic calamity to change this.
Here are my final thoughts on the Monday evening prior to Election Day, November 5, 2012. When measured in terms of liberty, prosperity, and ecology, America has been the most successful large-scale political experiment in world history. By far. No doubt. It’s true.
The reasons are complex and not all are accidents or consequences of history, geography, and endowments of nature. Rather many of these blessings flow from our American constitutional arrangements and culture of “optimistic Puritanism.”
The Constitution made creating value more attractive than using politics to transfer it. Hence people rationally chose to create wealth rather than redistribute it to themselves. These institutions were complemented by a culture that valued independence. Together, while flaws remained and injustices done, they provided a recipe for success. Great wealth, especially when highly skewed, generates many problems. But wealth also creates huge benefits. Resiliency and environmental sensitivity are two obvious examples.
The alternative to a system orientated toward wealth creation is a polity and society based on entitlements. Think Europe minus Germany and perhaps the Nordic countries. Our entitlement trap quite naturally generates the objectionable features of the current campaign. When this election is over, regardless of who wins, the relentless logic of demography and arithmetic condemn us to protracted conflict.