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Of, By, and For the People?

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We live by myths. For example, most of us believe we live in a representative, constitutional republic (sometimes erroneously called a democracy). Everyone learned this at school, and the belief follows most people throughout life. If things are not exactly to their liking, they fall back on the belief: “That’s the price we pay for living in a republic.” The word “republic” comes from the Latin res (thing) and publica (people). In a republic sovereignty is with the people, not the political leaders. That’s the theory anyway. Unfortunately, in practice the people are usually relegated to secondary status. The political class calls the shots, and the people are lucky if they even know what is going on. Much of the time the politicians and bureaucrats act as though what they are doing is none of the public’s business. To keep the people from knowing too much, the government has a variety of methods for shrouding its activities and otherwise making it difficult for citizens to understand and oppose policy initiatives.

It ought to be clear that most of what government does is beyond the gaze of average people. They are understandably busy raising families, putting food on the table, and cultivating friendships. It’s a rare person who has time to keep up with the arcane activities of legislators and bureaucrats.

Through personal experience, most people will understand that point. But how many people realize that members of Congress often don’t know what is in the bills they vote on? It happens more often than you might think.

This was driven home rather dramatically recently, when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan published an op-ed in the New York Times about Social Security. Moynihan has a reputation for being one of the more intelligent and conscientious members of the Senate. In his op-ed he explained that in 1977 the financing method for Social Security was changed: instead of raising just enough money to pay the retirees (pay-as-you-go), the payroll tax was raised so that the system would take in more in order to build up a reserve. (It’s a reserve in theory only. Any surplus money is “lent” to the rest of the government. When Social Security presents the IOUs, the government will have to borrow money or raise taxes to repay the “loans.”)

Listen to what Moynihan had to say about this 1977 legislative change: “No one noticed this. I was a member of the 1977 House-Senate Conference Committee that enacted the law, and I surely didn’t notice. Nor was it reported.”

This is astounding. An important change was made to the government’s biggest program and Senator Moynihan, a member of the conference committee charged with finalizing the bill, didn’t notice! If he didn’t notice it, who among his colleagues did? Not many, I’d bet.

Note that Moynihan points out that the change wasn’t reported either. That means the public was left in the dark.

Is this any way to run a constitutional, representative republic?

That episode is no anomaly. The government is too big and too complicated for anyone to grasp what it’s doing. Anyone involved understands only a small piece of it and trusts others for the rest. But should they be trusted?

School children are taught that the people in government are public servants with a unique insight into the good of the people. This is hogwash. They are no different from the rest of us, except in one important respect: their salaries don’t come from pleasing consenting customers; rather, they are paid from proceeds taken by force from nonconsenting taxpayers. That presents a set of incentives dramatically different from those the rest of us face. It means that bureaucrats and politicians don’t serve free customers who can take their business elsewhere at any time. Instead, they rule captive taxpayers who have no choice but to comply. True, we get to vote every two, four, and six years. But each of us has but one vote. Mathematically, it means little.

The textbook model of republican government is far from the real-world version. Our government largely defines its own powers and then camouflages much what it does. That makes it neither constitutional nor representative.

Think about that as election day approaches.

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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.