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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.