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Walter Lippmann Corrects Milton Friendman

A week ago today, Mark Wilson posted on Ricochet a piece entitled Electing the Wrong People, or Why We Shouldn’t Mourn Paul Ryan (and Mitch Daniels). In this connection, he included the video that you will find below – in which Milton Friedman suggests that it really does not matter whom you elect to Congress. What matters are the incentives under which they operate.

There is obviously some truth to this. Most of the Republican Congressmen who voted against Barack Obama’s so-called “stimulus” bill and who later opposed Obamacare were the same people who wallowed in pork-barrel politics during the Presidency of George W. Bush. If they conducted themselves in a more respectable fashion early in 2009 than they had in, say, 2005, it was initially because Nancy Pelosi foolishly failed to buy Republican votes for the “stimulus” bill by folding into it earmarks for individual Republicans. If they conducted themselves in a more respectable fashion late in 2009 and early in 2010, it was because the Tea-Party Movement had sprung up in reaction to the “stimulus” bill and because they feared being ousted in the primaries.

There can be no question about it. Politicians are self-interested. They want to be re-elected, and a vigilant citizenry can force them into line. Incentives do matter.

None of this means, however, that we should not regret the failure of Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan to step up to the plate and run for the Republican nomination for the Presidency – for we cannot presume that our fellow citizens will be vigilant. Put simply, ours is not a participatory democracy. It is a representative democracy. We value, most of the time, the private over the public, and we tend to enter the public arena when our welfare in the private realm is threatened. In keeping with our denial of the primacy of politics and our acceptance of the primacy of life within the domestic sphere and within society more generally, we outsource politics.

What I have in mind is this. We elect representatives and for the most part leave public policy to them. Every so often, of course, we wake up and pay attention, and then we may choose to throw the rascals out. But for most of us most of the time, politics is a matter far away about which we know little or nothing. We should no doubt be more attentive to politics and vigilant than we are, but we are a commercial people, and it is in the very nature of our regime that we be episodically vigilant (if even that). This is why we desperately need statesmen at the helm (from time to time, at least) – for in their absence things are apt to go awry.

Walter Lippmann, a repentant Progressive, caught this very well in his book The Public Philosophy, where he wrote,

The pressure of the electorate is normally for the soft side of the equations. That is why governments are unable to cope with reality when elected assemblies and mass opinions become decisive in the state, when there are no statesmen to resist the inclination of the voters and there are only politicians to excite and to exploit them. There is then a general tendency to be drawn downward, as by the force of gravity, towards insolvency, towards the insecurity of factionalism, towards the erosion of liberty, and towards hyperbolic wars.

What Lippmann chiefly had in mind is that soft despotism really is democracy’s drift. I have argued this in detail elsewhere. Here, let me simply say that, in normal circumstances, the incentives always favor the expansion of government; and in the absence of statesmanship this is not going to change.

Ask any honest, thoughtful Senator or Congressman, and you will learn that, while their constituents tend in theory to oppose needless government regulation and subsidies, they favor those regulations and those subsidies from which they benefit, and they clamor incessantly to keep and expand these. Most of the time, this is the pressure that they feel.

Ours is, however, a very peculiar moment. The prospect of national bankruptcy and the presence of massive unemployment in the wake of the “stimulus” bill, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank concentrate the mind wonderfully. Many more Americans than at any moment in my life time are now alert and vigilant. We have an opportunity not seen in this country since, at least, the midterm Republican landslide in 1946. To take advantage of it, however, we need a standard-bearer who can articulate the argument for constitutionalism and limited government, who can seize this opportunity and use it to educate our fellow citizens and to roll back the administrative side.

If our standard-bearer is a managerial progressive on the model of Herbert Hoover, Wendell Wilkie, Thomas E. Dewey, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, or John McCain, we will lose this opportunity and, after a little bout of budget-cutting, our politics will revert to the norm. If, on the other hand, he is a clown – good at spouting conservative doctrine, perhaps, but not genuinely thoughtful and not resolute in following through – he will either lose or, as President, discredit our side.

It really mattered that Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 and 1984. It will really matter if Barack Obama is re-elected President in 2012. It matters a great deal that Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels let us down. And we really do need to know whether Rick Perry is a statesman – principled, thoughtful, canny, and ruthless – or just another hot dog from Texas talented at running his mouth.

  1. The King Prawn

     Yours are very sobering words, especially for one standing highest on the band wagon for Perry.

    As to the motivation of politicians, I’m drawn again to Patrick Henry’s warnings of the inevitible conflict between “the happiness of the people” and “their [elected officials] personal interest, their ambition and avarice.” (here, p. 167). Our only recourse is to throw the rascals out, as you say, but Henry contends that there “is no real check to prevent their ruining us.”

  2. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    My hope is that Perry rises to the occasion.

  3. Illiniguy

    “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.” – Talleyrand

    Do you think that statesmanship could be something that is thrust upon someone confronted with impossible choices?

  4. michael kelley

    “If our standard-bearer is a managerial progressive on the model of Herbert Hoover, Wendell Wilkie, Thomas E. Dewey, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, or John McCain, we will lose this opportunity and, after a little bout of budget-cutting, our politics will revert to the norm.”

    And the norm will be a new norm because at one point or another, if we do not get some religion with our Nation’s balance sheet, the bond market will lock out our government’s borrowing by charging us interest rates only Greece is willing to pay.

  5. Crow

    “…when there are no statesmen to resist the inclination of the voters and there are only politicians to excite and to exploit them.”

    I strongly agree with Lippmann’s point here, and I suspect the Founders would too. Certainly the authors of the Federalist did.

    Moreover, I think we can all agree that the Democrats for two generations have stoked the appetites of many of our fellow citizens and tempted them into the soft despotism of the advanced welfare state.

    So since we all agree on that, let’s turn to the more interesting question of where we may disagree, as this will be more revealing.

    I wonder, Prof. Rahe–is it necessary to also have this kind of statesmanship on the Right? What do you think it would look like for a Republican statesman to “temper” the attitudes of those on the right, rather than “excite and exploit” them? 

  6. The Mugwump

    We have another possibility as per Friedman’s statement about forcing the wrong people to do the right thing.  A strong Tea party faction in the House might be sufficient to force even a managerial progressive to make the draconian cuts necessary to rollback the administrative state.  My own plan to retain only the departments of state, defense, treasury, and justice is constitutionally justifiable, but probably unrealistic.  Few professional politicians have either the vision or the guts to make the necessary tough call.  Gary Johnson is perhaps one of the few, but he’s very much a marginal candidate at this point.  I suppose the best we can hope for is some sort of incremental rollback of the worst administrative abuses, but not much more than that even in the best of circumstances.  

  7. KC Mulville
    Paul A. Rahe: … they favor those regulations and those subsidies from which they benefit, and they clamor incessantly to keep and expand these.

    I’ve become suspicious of this argument lately. Politicians often cite this to explain why it’s so hard to cut programs, but the argument may be worth further review.

    Is it that citizens are just plain selfish, or is it that they’re just being strategic?

    It’s a legitimate fear that if we don’t grab a fair share of the benefits, someone else will. At that point, personal sacrifice is pointless if the money is going to be spent anyway, and all that’s left is to decide who gets it.

    I’m sure there’s plenty of good old-fashioned greed to go around. But what would happen if we removed the assumption that money was going to be spent politically? What if spending wasn’t automatic and inevitable? What if we all believed -with good reason- that the political trough had dried up for everyone?

    I’m sure there would still be snouts at the trough -  but wouldn’t it change the dynamic?

  8. The King Prawn

     KC, consider how dry that trough would be if the states were still represented in the national government via the senate. There is no way the states would allow their representatives to deplete the tax base so that the state and local cut of the pie was a pittance or a passthrough.

  9. liberal jim

    Your often repeated assertion that Ryan and Daniels decision to not run is some sort of failure on their part I find remarkably inconsistent.  I think both men are admirable and would support either one because they have the qualities to make a good if not great President.  I also think they are in the best position to make the decision if seeking the office at this time is best for the country.   How can I say I will not trust them to make the correct decision about running and still say I would trust them to make the correct decisions once elected?  

  10. KC Mulville
    The King Prawn:   There is no way the states would allow their representatives to deplete the tax base so that the state and local cut of the pie was a pittance or a passthrough. ·

    Excellent point, as usual …

  11. liberal jim
    Paul A. Rahe: , we need a standard-bearer who can articulate the argument for constitutionalism and limited government, who can seize this opportunity and use it to educate our fellow citizens and to roll back the administrative side.

    I don’t disagree with your point.  Reagan however did not reverse the slide, but merely slowed it down.  Articulating the argument is important and it would be nice if it were that simple.  Perry in his practice of politics is closer to LBJ than Reagan.  You need to develop a plan B. 

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    liberal jim

    Paul A. Rahe: , we need a standard-bearer who can articulate the argument for constitutionalism and limited government, who can seize this opportunity and use it to educate our fellow citizens and to roll back the administrative side.

    I don’t disagree with your point.  Reagan however did not reverse the slide, but merely slowed it down.  Articulating the argument is important and it would be nice if it were that simple.  Perry in his practice of politics is closer to LBJ than Reagan.  You need to develop a plan B.  · Aug 31 at 10:45am

    You are right about Reagan, but it would be fair to say that he had other priorities — in particular, defeating the Soviet Union. You may be right about Perry, and I probably do need a Plan B. Right now, I am at a loss for one.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    liberal jim: Your often repeated assertion that Ryan and Daniels decision to not run is some sort of failure on their part I find remarkably inconsistent.  I think both men are admirable and would support either one because they have the qualities to make a good if not great President.  I also think they are in the best position to make the decision if seeking the office at this time is best for the country.   How can I say I will not trust them to make the correct decision about running and still say I would trust them to make the correct decisions once elected?   · Aug 31 at 10:24am

    You are right. In each of the two, there may be something missing.

  14. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    KC Mulville

    Paul A. Rahe: … they favor those regulations and those subsidies from which they benefit, and they clamor incessantly to keep and expand these.

    I’ve become suspicious of this argument lately. Politicians often cite this to explain why it’s so hard to cut programs, but the argument may be worth further review.

    Is it that citizens are just plain selfish, or is it that they’re just being strategic?

    …I’m sure there’s plenty of good old-fashioned greed to go around. But what would happen if we removed the assumption that money was going to be spent politically? What if spending wasn’t automatic and inevitable? What if we all believed -with good reason- that the political trough had dried up for everyone?

    I’m sure there would still be snouts at the trough -  but wouldn’t it change the dynamic? · Aug 31 at 10:07am

    You are right. It might well do so. To an ever increasing degree, I am persuaded that we must get rid of all subsidies and all personal tax deductions.

  15. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Illiniguy: “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.” – Talleyrand

    Do you think that statesmanship could be something that is thrust upon someone confronted with impossible choices? · Aug 31 at 9:46am

    It often is — and men who seem to lack the requisite qualities often rise to the occasion. In foreign affairs, for example, Harry Truman did.

  16. Capt. Spaulding

    Wendell Willkie, probably the most misspelled name in presidential politics. I know from having got it wrong more than once. Duane had it right, by the way. 

  17. Bruce in Marin
    Paul A. Rahe:   And we really do need to know whether Rick Perry is a statesman – principled, thoughtful, canny, and ruthless – or just another hot dog from Texas talented at running his mouth. ·

    For me this is the question of the hour.  But how do we go about answering it?   Debates can be helpful, but only if the moderators choose the right format and ask the right questions.  What suggestions do you or others here have for how best to prod the candidates into revealing what we need to know about them?

  18. Chris Johnson

     As to those that are not running, some of you may not have seen this brief interview with Ryan.  I really do think he is right where we need him to be.

  19. Duane Oyen

    Ike, Dole, and GWB were “managerial progressives‘?  A la Willkie, Dewey, and Nixon?  Prof. Rahe, with due respect, you are wielding a brush so broad that the distinctions (Reagan vs. every other Republican between 1901 and 2011 except for Bachmann or Ryan) are meaningless.

    I fear that Ryan Fever has affected your judgment.  This is not a Manichaean distinction- in NJ, Chris Christie was the lefty in the primary, insufficiently pure for the local TEA Party.  And one can see how there were some issues with his positions, yet no one here would argue that Christie, who doesn’t follow the party line on a bunch of issues, is a “managerial progressive”. 

  20. Illiniguy
    Paul A. Rahe

    Illiniguy: “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.” – Talleyrand

    Do you think that statesmanship could be something that is thrust upon someone confronted with impossible choices? · Aug 31 at 9:46am

    It often is — and men who seem to lack the requisite qualities often rise to the occasion. In foreign affairs, for example, Harry Truman did. · Aug 31 at 11:40am

    It’d be a lot tougher for a domestic statesman to arise and subsequently survive the first election. We’ll see what happens to Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

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