It does happen, you know. It’s certainly happened to me. Today, it’s happened to Roger Kimball:
The business of Washington is to make government bigger—forever. That is not what the people, who pay for it, want.
Well, it’s certainly not what I want. If you’re a regular Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch, it’s surely not what you want. But “the people” is a vast and incoherent aggregate. Sad to say, for every identifiable agency in the Executive Branch of the federal government, there exists:
- A group that works for it;
- Vendors that sell to it;
- A portion of “the people” – beneficiaries and ideological supporters – who’d like to see it grow;
- A portion of “the people” – hard-pressed taxpayers and ideological opponents – who’d like to see it end.
Three of those four groups are opposed to the diminution of that agency. Indeed, they’d very much like to see it grow to the skies. Politically, they have always outweighed the fourth group, and probably always will.
The first three communities enumerated above are usually not perfectly disjoint sets. But they exhibit remarkable cohesion around their shared interests. That’s the basis for the Public Choice dynamic that over-empowers interest groups with short, coherent agendas. Politicians know this, which is why when they “shop for votes,” they try their damnedest to “buy wholesale.” With our money, of course.
Politicians cannot and do not attempt to please “the people.” They know the folly of that approach. They strive to appeal to a coalition of identifiable interest groups or interest-centered demographics. We hear about such things now and then, for instance when an aspirant to the presidency speaks at a convention held by some sizable union. The candidate most adept at assembling such a coalition usually prevails.
“The people” is not an interest group. Politicians may give it lip service, but when they troll for votes it could not be further from their thoughts.
Some Americans do ardently yearn for smaller, more frugal government. Perhaps that even describes the great majority of us. Yet if you ask any one voter whether he’d be willing to sacrifice his particular deduction, subsidy, or subvention, you’re likely to freeze him solid. He’ll hem, haw, and stammer. The prospect will threaten his well-being much too directly.
- Ask a dairy farmer whether he’d willingly sacrifice dairy subsidies.
- Ask a teacher whether he’d willingly sacrifice federal “aid to education.”
- Ask a researcher whether he’d willingly sacrifice his federal research grant.
- Ask a “senior citizen” whether he’d willingly sacrifice Social Security or Medicare.
- Ask a union member whether he’d willingly sacrifice the Norris-Laguardia, the Wagner-Taft-Hartley, or the Davis-Bacon Act.
- Ask a homeowner –there are a great many of us – whether he’d willingly sacrifice the deductibility of the interest on his mortgage.
That’s how Washington became what it is today. “The people” had nothing to do with it. Nor will they unite around a vision of frugal government without first considering the hazard to their particular giveaway. It’s not a pleasant conclusion, but the facts will support no other.
The Romans knew the process: Divide ut impera! “Divide to rule!” It works just as well today as it did in the time of the Caesars, and the politicians know it.