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Washington: Scandalized and Loving It

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Here’s the key to understanding Washington: it loves scandal. That’s not the official line, of course. Scandal is portrayed as tragedy. Everyone wrings his hands, lamenting the time wasted investigating wrongdoing and the lost opportunities for reform.

On cue, someone will always say that scandal mongering is politically motivated and that “the voters did not send us here to engage in partisan bickering.” That is usually a prelude to broadening any investigation to include Republicans and Democrats. Sanctimony abounds.

Don’t believe a word of it. The town thrives on scandal. No one, from the reporters to the lobbyists to the politicians, can wait to read the morning papers to see who’s up to what. Washington becomes visibly energized with headlines about dubious campaign contributions, shady land deals, misused money, intercepted cellular telephone calls, sexual harassment, and the like.

You might wonder why scandal is so highly valued. My theory is that scandal keeps public attention away from what really goes on in the capital. Journalist Michael Kinsley once said that the real scandal is the legal stuff that happens. Right he was.

Formerly, when government wanted to distract the public’s attention from its activities, it got entangled overseas. War has always been useful that way. Shakespeare has a monarch understanding the value of “busy[ing] giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” Perceptive observers have long noted that intervention abroad can stimulate the patriot juices and distract attention from domestic woes. That might reduce pressure for changes that the rulers had no interest in making.

But war is a risky method of distraction. In modern America, it works for a short time. But since Vietnam, prolonged conflict — and body bags, in particular — do not sustain public enthusiasm. People can quickly turn on the leaders responsible for endangering American servicemen and women.

Scandal is much safer. For the leaders, the longer it goes on the better. Sure, a few politicians may have to be sacrificed, but you don’t have to have a stomach for bloodletting.

Unlike war, scandal doesn’t so much distract the people as turn them off. Every day talk-radio hosts complain that people don’t care about the scandals raging in Washington. They can’t understand why citizens aren’t out in the streets demanding the heads of the shady folks involved.

I’ve never seen any mystery to that. Who, besides the workers in the federal city, has the time and interest to read about Whitewater, much less try to do anything about it? Have you heard the phrase “get a life”? That’s what comes to mind when I hear of someone who keeps abreast of Washington scandals without getting paid handsomely to do so.

You have to understand that it is to the politicians’ advantage for people’s eyes to glaze over. If that didn’t happen, they might see what really goes on. It might sink in that the government extracts $1.6 trillion a year from the country’s producers of wealth and gives them nothing that they would actually buy were they free to choose for themselves. They might learn that the federal government is essentially a huge transfer, or plunder, machine, moving money from one set of hands to another. They might realize that run amok bureaucrats believe that they should regulate everything anyone does especially things that are fun. People might even discover that, for all their braggadocio, the leaders have no idea what they are doing. They don’t know what the interest rate should be or how much we should save or how much medical insurance we should buy or even how many peanuts should be in a package of mixed nuts. They will never know.

But if lots of people began having thoughts like that, well, who knows what they’d demand? They might be seized with the kinds of thoughts that occupied Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine — revolutionary thoughts.

When the Jefferson Memorial was built during the New Deal and selections of Jefferson’s writing were inscribed on the walls, the planners chose to omit the passage from the Declaration of Independence saying that when government becomes destructive of our natural rights, we have the right to “alter or abolish” it. Washington didn’t want the people to know that. Scandal is another way of keeping them in the dark.

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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.