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Politics Won’t Produce Moral Heroes

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Much of the reaction about President Clinton’s difficulties can be summed up thus: Our leader let us down. The premise is that the president is not just a chief executive officer, but much more: a moral and spiritual leader of the nation. I submit this is an unfortunate attitude for free people.

Americans have long had a mixed view of politics. They venerate officeholders while making them the butt of jokes. Many citizens would go out of their way to shake hands with their mayor or congressmen, but then would count their fingers to make sure none were missing.

There’s a reason for this: Politics brings celebrity, which Americans can’t get enough of. But politics is by nature unsavory. We are taught, of course, that politics is the conduct of the people’s business. But I think people know that is not the full story. They have a nagging sense that it is really the hijacking of the people’s business. Politics routinely takes matters better left to private, voluntary resolution and turns them into grist for career busybodies. The political world is populated by figures who want to regulate us for our own benefit and take our money so they can spend it for our own good. Who exemplifies this better than President Clinton? He feels our pain. He is, as the first lady tells us over and over, “committed.” What’s more, though he can’t say this, he’s indispensable to our well-being. Clinton would not want to be a mere chief executive. Most politicians fit this same mold; they will help us even if it kills us.

Each election day, solemn editorial writers describe in almost sacred terms the collective process by which officeholders are chosen. Echoing Rousseau, they speak of elections as a mystical procedure in which we put aside our narrow “selfish” concerns, enter the polling place, and let the “general will,” the real public interest, emerge. Thus, the winner of an election is in some sense anointed. Officeholders and democracy receive an aura they do not deserve, because strictly speaking, there is no collective will or choice.

Democratic decisionmaking is unlike any other decisionmaking. When a person goes to a supermarket and “votes for” Cheerios, he gets Cheerios. His choice is decisive. And he personally incurs a known cost to get it; the cost is whatever he might forgo to get it, Wheaties perhaps. This is nothing like choosing between candidates in an election.

When a citizen votes for Smith over Jones, his choice is not decisive. His voting for Smith doesn’t make Smith the winner-the chance of his vote’s being decisive is almost zero. Moreover, there is no real cost to voting for Smith rather than Jones; the voter forgoes nothing. Since an individual voter will pay only a small part of whatever a winning candidate will spend in office, the real price of campaign promises has little influence on the results.

These facts shape the electoral process. The costs and benefits of individual electoral decisions are almost all sentimental. Candidates get elected by making voters feel good about themselves and bad about their opponents. The democratic arena is one of emotion. Remember “The Man from Hope”?

Is it any wonder that elections tend not to reward competence or good sense? The system is designed to reward good impressions, dramatic skills, and-yes-deceit. That we get men like Bill Clinton in high office is predictable.

The way to avoid such men in the future is to shrink the presidency and the entire federal government down to constitutional proportions. When government’s only role is maintaining the rule of law and when our liberty to go about our peaceful business is fully respected, no one will see the presidency as a path to glory. On that day, it won’t matter much who holds the office. We can find our heroes somewhere else.

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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.