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Don’t Look to Politicians for Inspiration

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The other day I heard someone lament that the current field of presidential contenders includes no one who can be looked to for inspiration. My first response was to wonder why anyone would look to that group for inspiration in the first place?

Why indeed? I’m not sure where Americans got the crazy idea that presidents are supposed to be role models or personal leaders. If you look over the Constitution, the job is pretty mundane. A president was expected to execute laws related to a list of congressional powers described by James Madison as “few and defined.” A president was supposed to oversee a modest foreign policy befitting a constitutional republic, not an empire. And he was supposed to command the armed forces when fighting defensive wars. All in all, the president was the government’s chief executive, not the people’s leader.

Beginning with Lincoln, all this got distorted, to the point that presidents are now expected to be supermen or saviors. Their job includes policing the world, comforting us, ending poverty, abolishing hatred and prejudice, finding cures for diseases, making things affordable, creating jobs, and “growing the economy.”

Lately presidents are even supposed to motivate us to strive for something “greater than ourselves,” as John McCain put it when he was running for messiah, I mean president, in 2000.

I’m not surprised that presidential aspirants easily don the mantle of inspirational leader. What surprises me is that reasonable people buy it. Anyone who looks to a politician for inspiration has been neglecting some important parts of life.

Most politicians have spent their professional lives plotting to be in a position to spend other people’s money in order to tell them how to live. Officeholders are judged by how many intrusive laws they’ve pushed through the legislative process. They get into office by creating impressions that bear little if any resemblance to the truth. Take the “serious” Democratic presidential contenders, for example. Every one of them condemns “special interests” and claims to be one of the common people. Except each is closely tied to special interests and has nothing in common with common people. Sen. John Kerry has a knack for marrying into money, and is in bed with the teachers’ unions, among other special interests. Sen. John Edwards was a plaintiffs’ lawyer, which is as much a special interest as the energy industry. He’s fabulously wealthy, which sets him apart from most people in the country. Kerry and Edwards both have taken money from lobbyists, giving the lie to their claims of being uniquely virtuous in American politics. Much the same can be said of Howard Dean, whose tenure as governor of Vermont saw ample dealings with what he today damns as special interests. Can anyone real

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.