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Public Master

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First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently wants to represent New York state in the U.S. Senate. She says she wishes to serve the people of New York.

Read that carefully. She wants to be their servant. Does anyone believe that?

What I’m about to say does not apply just to Mrs. Clinton. It applies to anyone who runs for political office. Mrs. Clinton simply makes a good example.

Her reason for running looks false on its face. If she were truly motivated by a desire to serve people, she wouldn’t have chosen New York, a state with which she has no close connection. People’s good feelings for others naturally diminish in intensity with distance. Feelings are strongest for closest family and friends; they are less strong for mere acquaintances; they are weaker still for perfect strangers one has never even seen. No one can love everybody. Mrs. Clinton’s claim would be slightly more credible had she chosen to run in Arkansas, where she lived many years before moving to the White House. Besides that, she could have waited until 2002, when Republican Tim Hutchinson is up for reelection, sparing herself (and us) the awkwardness of running for office while still the First Lady. Even Illinois, where she grew up, would have been a more credible choice.

But she chose high-profile New York – if she can make it there, she can make it anywhere. That alone should induce skepticism about her yearning to serve. Her major connection there is that she and the president once borrowed someone’s home in the tony Hamptons for a brief vacation. (The Clintons do that a lot, having owned a home only once and briefly. That may account for Mrs. Clinton’s hyperconcern for the homeless.)

Not being a New Yorker, she cannot claim to know what New Yorkers as New Yorkers want. Imagine what the reception would have been if she had announced for governor. The laughter would have been deafening. People seem to believe that if you want to be governor, you should know something about the state you’re seeking election in. But being a senator is a different story. Why?

Hillary’s listening tour

A defender of Mrs. Clinton might respond that New Yorkers want what everyone else wants. Then why her “listening tour”? She wants New Yorkers to believe that they have special needs that require representation in Washington, and that she’s the one to represent them – as soon as she finds out what those needs are.

The listening tour was a sham, of course. Mrs. Clinton has an ideological agenda, which wasn’t going to be changed by what New Yorkers told her. That’s fine. In fact, if one’s purpose is to pursue an ideological agenda in the Senate, it really shouldn’t matter what state one represents. A libertarian could reasonably turn up in any state and announce: “If elected to the U.S. Senate, I will vote against every bill that violates individual rights, and introduce bills to repeal all existing violations of rights. Whatever they may think, the only thing the people of this state need from Washington is to be left alone.” The candidate’s chances of getting elected would be rather small, but the message would be coherent.

Likewise, Mrs. Clinton could have said, “I don’t need to know what New Yorkers want. I know what they need: socialism. And that’s what I intend to pursue.” That would also be coherent. But that’s not what she’s saying.

As an aside, it is curious that learning what the voters of a state want and vowing to represent their interests in Washington is considered praiseworthy. Isn’t that also condemned as “pork”? If you devoutly believe that government should do things for people, what’s wrong with pork? This is one of those cases of perspective. If I do it, I’m representing my constituents. But if you do it, it’s damnable pork-barrel politics. The corrupt nature of politics is infinite.

As interesting as all that is, there are deeper reasons for doubting Mrs. Clinton’s motives, and they have nothing to do with all the psychologizing about her inner need to break free of the cad she is married to or her entrance into her zesty postmenopausal years. (When will we be spared Gail Sheehy and the other psychobabblers?)

Power vs. service

Politics is about power. It is about taking from Producer A and giving to Moocher B. Service is merely the rationalization. There’s nothing admirable about it. We recognize this in private life. What would you call someone who insisted on making decisions for you – with your money – whether you wanted this “service” or not? A quidnunc! You wouldn’t admire the presumptuous interloper’s supposed passion for service; rather, you’d suspect that this person wanted power and you’d tell him (or her) to leave you alone.

Why do we apply another standard to someone who seeks political office? The candidate fits the above description to a T. Mrs. Clinton has been wandering through New York “listening,” but in all actuality she’s been implicitly saying to those good folks, “Let me decide how to spend the goodly portion of your income the IRS seizes each pay period. In fact, let me increase that portion. And let me tell you how your medical care, education, and charity ought to be done. Give me that authority over your lives, please.”

Oh yes, the people of New York will get to vote on which quidnunc will “represent” them. That’s a comfort indeed, especially when the odds are better that an individual will be struck by lightning on the way to the polls than that he’ll determine the outcome of the election. But, hey, people have made sacrifices for that right, so I’ll leave that alone. The point is, New Yorkers will be fleeced in any case.

If you’ve ever met a politician, you know that the last thing on his (or her) mind is service. There are few exceptions. Officeholders want careers, influence, prestige, acolytes, even lucre. As my colleague Beth Hoffman says, no one leaves politics poorer than when he went in. Political aspirants want to be big wheels. In fact, they aren’t much different from anyone else, except everyone else refrains from forcing his “service” on you – which makes all the difference in the world.

Politics and self-interest

Do not interpret this as a condemnation of self-interest and a commendation of “selflessness.” Pursuing self-interest is good; it makes the world go. What I’m condemning is the notion of self-interest that includes the initiation of coercion against other people. Whatever we may say about politicians, they are not selfless. The very thought is ridiculous. Rather, they are perversely self-centered. When a candidate says, “I want to be elected to the U.S. Senate because I want to make a difference,” he exhibits a presumptuous and revolting egotism that should get him banished from civil circles. Businessmen may also be motivated to change the world (Bill Gates comes to mind), but they offer values rather than issue commands.

If you’ve watched Mrs. Clinton on television, you already know that she is not looking for the hindmost position of the master-servant relationship. She won’t be serving anybody but herself. What she wants is a base of operation. An old Clinton-watcher, Arkansas newspaper columnist John R. Starr, confirms it. He once asked Mrs. Clinton what she wanted. She answered, “I want to run something.”

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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.