On Becoming a Political Player
Tea Party Economist
by Gary North: Guns,
Trade, and Subsidies
few days ago, I received an e-mail from an old friend. One of their
family friends had just suffered a stroke. I knew who the old friend
was. He had served for two years in a high office in the federal
government during the Nixon and Ford administrations. A decade earlier,
he had served for one term as a Congressman.
He had resigned
from Congress in order to run for governor. He lost the race by
a razor-thin margin. The campaign had received national attention,
because he was a Republican running in a southern state that had
not elected a Republican governor since the Reconstruction era.
As far as I
know, he was only elected to office once, and he was only appointed
to high office once. His total political experience in office was
about four years. He did become a familiar figure in Republican
Party politics for over 40 years. He was never a household name,
but he did achieve a certain amount of influence in the background
for a generation.
I never heard
of any scandal associated with his name. He was generally conservative
in his outlook. He was the heir of a successful family business,
and that business still remains profitable. So, by any standard
that we would normally apply to someone, he was a success.
Now, at age
85, he is unlikely to reenter politics or business. If he survives,
he will probably be hampered by the effects of his stroke. Under
these circumstances, a person is certainly entitled to depart from
public life and business life. He has served voters, he has served
two Presidents, and he has served customers. As far as I am concerned,
his life has been a success.
because of the nature of politics, being a success in the background
is not sufficient for those who have been bitten by the political
bug. Their hope is to change the country by means of political action.
They want to have at least a Wikipedia entry, as this man has. But
the entry indicates little more than the fact that he experienced
a political defeat that had seemed important at the time, but which
is now forgotten. Most politicians want more.
bug, when it bites, seems to transmit a disease that is close to
incurable. People keep coming back to be bitten again and again.
The ambition that is transmitted by the political bug is such that
people seem to be afflicted with it all of their lives.
IN BUSINESS OR POLITICS
I have heard
of people who have the same affliction of ambition with respect
to business. But business is different from politics. A successful
business involves serving customers on a long-term basis. Day after
day, month after month, year after year, a businessman serves the
desires of customers. There are successes that register in the corporation's
profit and loss statement. There are daily challenges, but there
are daily victories.
learns through trial and error how to serve the needs of customers.
After a time, he usually gets good enough at this so that he can
do it in a consistent manner. He can see, on a quarterly basis,
how well he is doing. He is able to see that customers are satisfied
with the output of his labor. He can see that he has been a success
on a small scale over a long period of time.
In the case
of somebody who wants to be a political player, there is almost
no measurable feedback unless he is elected to office. If he is
elected to office, election after election, he can assume that the
voters are satisfied with his performance. Yet it is very difficult
for him to see that he has had any influence in shaping anyone's
life. A businessman knows that his products make the lives of his
customers better. But how does a politician know this? How does
he know that being reelected is the same as a businessman's knowledge
that his products have satisfied customer demand?
This is one
of the great defects of politics. The person who devotes his life
to politics rarely can see that his investment has made a significant
difference in anybody's life. Only in the rarest of circumstances
do we find that a very high official is in a position to change
the nature of political life, or to fundamentally alter the direction
in which political life has been headed.
When a person
looks back over 40 years or 50 years of activity in the realm of
politics, he is hard-pressed to see that his investment paid off.
A businessman can usually see that steady improvements in his product
line or services can be measured. He can see that product quality
has improved, or that the number of products he offered for sale
continued to increase over a long period of time. He has a sense
of progress that stems from the fact that he can see with his own
eyes, or at least through the eyes of his advertisers, that he was
able to affect positively the lives of customers.
looks back at 40 years of service and probably finds that he either
voted with large numbers of people in the legislature, which means
that his vote really did not make a difference, or else he voted
on the losing side repeatedly, in which case they can also be sure
that he had little effect.
The great exception
to this rule is Ron Paul. He voted against legislation from 1976
until the present, and he was usually outvoted by large majorities.
At the same time, no bill that he ever proposed became a law. So,
you might think that he would look back at his efforts and conclude
that he might as well have stayed out of politics. Yet, in this
unique case, his lack of victories in Congress contributed to his
enormous success in talking to voters about the nature of American
politics and economics. His defeats gave him what Teddy Roosevelt
referred to as a bully pulpit.
bully pulpit has now changed the thinking of millions of voters.
As an educational venture, his decades of lost votes and a seemingly
lost cause have led to a political outcome that would have been
inconceivable when he began as a freshman Congressman in 1976. I
speak with authority, because I was on his staff at that time. We
had no thought that, almost four decades later, he would have a
national audience, and that even in retirement he will be able to
maintain a large audience because of YouTube, email, and other Internet
outlets. There were no such technologies when he began.
So, from a
political point of view, Ron Paul is a player. Yet he never set
out to become a player. The technology available to him during most
of his years in Congress did not enable him, or anyone like him,
to reach a large national audience. He did understand newsletters,
and that gave him an audience beyond his congressional district,
but that was not the same as YouTube or websites.
politician has no understanding of how to use the media to get out
his message, and even if he did, this would do him no good. He has
no message. Congressmen came to Ron Paul in 2008 and asked him how
they could use the media to raise money in their district. He was
polite, but he had to tell them that the reason why he had such
a broad audience was that he had a unique message, and this message
was being promoted in Congress by nobody else.
who wants to become a player in politics has got to stay within
the prevailing paradigm. But the prevailing paradigm is that of
the Keynesian mixed economy and the American Empire. Stand foursquare
behind these two political traditions, and you become a face in
the crowd. You are just one more person promoting the world-and-life
view that has been promoted by both American political parties since
at least 1912. A person who wants to become a player on that basis
has to be uniquely gifted and also the beneficiary of political
and historical forces that are essentially not controllable by any
individual who seeks political influence.
There was no
way that Ronald Reagan in 1954, or even 1960, could have known that
he would become a major political player as a result of the campaign
speech he gave for Barry Goldwater late in Goldwater's campaign
for President in 1964. The importance of that speech was magnified
by the overwhelming defeat that Goldwater suffered. That speech
elevated him to a position of political influence in California,
and that in turn was able to launch his national career.
of people who claw their way to the top of the political hierarchy
is so limited that it is essentially impossible for a person to
begin his political career with any understanding of how he might
possibly claw his way to the top. He may have a goal of being on
top at some point, in the way that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon
had early goals, but the series of events that led both of them
to the top of the heap, and then to the ash heap, could not have
been guessed by either of them. Those two men were among the most
skilled political operatives in the history of the 20th century,
and their success led to their ultimate defeat. Both of them left
the Presidency as disgraced men.
wonder about the trustworthiness of anybody who seriously thinks
that he can become a player in modern American politics, or modern
anywhere politics. The odds against a person's being able to get
to the top are so great, that I wonder what kind of motivation it
takes for a man to stay in the world of politics long enough to
be the beneficiary of unpredictable forces and therefore be able
to grab the brass ring of politics.
once described the presidency as the greased pig of American politics.
I have a mental picture of a football field filled with hundreds
of political hopefuls, all rushing around trying to grab that greased
pig. All but a few of the will have nothing to show for their efforts
at the end of their lives.
This is not
true of business. When you are in business, small victories are
relevant. They may or may not add up over time to a major victory,
but that takes nothing away from the fact that those little victories,
sale by sale, delivered value to customers who made purchases. You
do not have to get to the top in business in order to be able to
look back at your career and conclude that your time was well spent.
it is all too easy to look back at the end of a career and wonder
if all that investment of time and money and emotion amounted to
anything. How would you assess the degree of success in the life's
work of a politician who never became famous? What are the standards
by which you would evaluate such a political career?
I am convinced
that the desire to become a political player is self-defeating in
almost all cases. A person may be elected for many terms, yet he
still cannot in confidence look back at the time he spent and be
sure that he had not wasted his life. He had better have a philosophy
that teaches that small victories, even though not perceived by
the public, do add up over time. But that is basically a statement
of trust in historical progress that cannot be verified by the logic
of politics. It is a statement of faith, not a statement of measurable
When we think
of what it would take to reverse the modern welfare-warfare state,
it is beyond our power of comprehension. The thing is so huge, the
tradition so entrenched, the voting bloc so broad, and the special
interests so well-organized, that anyone who thinks that he ought
to devote the rest of his life to campaigning against this had better
have a deeply theological view of the efficacy of politics. Why?
Because most people would regard the task as suitable for Don Quixote.
Most people would serve as Sancho Panza, warning the half-crazed
knight that he was wasting his time.
Yet in every
field, significant changes come by way of small, probably invisible
improvements over time. This applies to politics. The fact that
someone's campaign to shrink the state by means of budget cutbacks
has failed, decade after decade, does not mean that the effort was
a failure. This is because of the logic of political life. If you
begin with the assumption that bad politics produces bad economics,
and that people ultimately will vote their pocketbooks, then you
ought to conclude that fighting the Keynesian mixed economy will
eventually pay off.
It is not that
the criticism of Keynesian economics will roll back Keynesian economic
policies. Rather, it is that Keynesian economics ultimately must
go bankrupt, because, as Margaret Thatcher said, socialism ceases
to work when it runs out of other people's money. The same is true
of Keynesian interventionism. The system is inherently self-defeating.
It just takes a long time for this to become obvious.
to a politician who is critical of the system is this: at some point,
voters will look for explanations as to why the Keynesian welfare
state went bankrupt. It is when they look for explanations of the
failure, which means a failure that Keynesians produced, there will
come a time in which politicians and publicists will be able to
pin the tail on the Keynesian donkey. There will come a day of reckoning,
and that is when the payoff comes for the economist, journalist,
or politician who steadfastly warned against the inevitable outcome
of Keynesian economic policies.
In other words,
the payoff may come years after the retirement of the economists,
columnists, and politicians who had warned against the Keynesian
system. I worked with an older generation of economists and publicists
who did just exactly that, and they received little credit in their
lifetimes. They surely did not make a lot of money. But, in retrospect,
their efforts to warn against the bankrupting effects of Keynesian
policies are now beginning to pay off. They are long dead. But their
ideas have begun to spread.
This is why
we have to take a long-term view of our political efforts. There
is no guarantee, or even obvious likelihood, that a principled stand
against the welfare-warfare state is going to pay off as a direct
result of our stand. On the contrary, in the face of overwhelming
support for the welfare-warfare state, and the popularity of using
political coercion to loot the body politic, the person who stands
against the direction in which we are headed seems to be a utopian.
He is out of step. He gains no traction through the existing political
But, in the
long run, the welfare-warfare state will bankrupt itself. This is
part of the message of the critics. For as long as the system bumbles
along, the public will assume that the critics are utopians. The
public believes that the handouts will never end. But they will
end. And, when they end, a younger generation of voters and would-be
political players will find that there was a systematic body of
opinion that had warned against what was coming.
It is not that
a younger generation will be able to say, "We told you so." It is
that a younger generation will be able to say, "They told you so,
and we are with them." This is what Ron Paul has been saying about
the works of Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Henry Hazlitt.
He is correct. They did sound a warning. They did provide an analytical
framework by which they made accurate predictions about the looming
insolvency of the welfare-warfare state.
I would hope
that nobody reading this has the desire to become a political player.
I hope that no one expects that he will be able to go to Washington
and change the system. The system will change, as a result of its
own internal contradictions, whether or not this or that critic
of Keynesianism is elected to Congress. There will not be enough
people sharing his views to enable them to change the direction
of the present political economy. But, at some point, people who
preach this message will gain traction with the voters. When the
checks from Washington bounce, voters will be ready to hear the
story of why the checks are bouncing, or why the dollar has sunk
in purchasing power.
I feel sorry
for anybody who is bitten by the political bug. He thinks that he
will personally benefit from years of backslapping, fundraising,
and sitting in silence while expert witnesses drone on and on and
on. He thinks that this is price of his footnote in history. He
wants to get his 15 minutes of fame. Really, he wants to get years
of fame, and then he wants that capstone of American politics: his
picture on a calendar of American Presidents that is hung in public
school classrooms around the nation.
gets his picture on that calendar. Of those who do, most are forgotten
by the parents of the students in the classroom, and the students
in the classroom never pay any attention to the calendar.
I think of
Bill Clinton, and I wonder what Clinton thinks his legacy will be
in the history textbooks. Other than his affair with Monica Lewinsky,
which will have to be carefully edited by the authors of the textbooks,
what was his legacy? If high school civics teachers ask on a final
exam, "What was Clinton's unique legacy?" a few very well-informed
students will write, "He was the first President since Andrew Johnson
to be impeached."
I think of
Jimmy Carter. His main legacies are phrases. The famous one, "Trust
me," is famous because everybody laughs at in retrospect. His other
phrase, "malaise," he never actually said. But voters thought he
said it, and Reagan won overwhelmingly. Then Reagan made famous
his phrase, "morning in America." When we look at Reagan's deficits,
beginning in 1983, we know that the phrase should been "mourning
I have known
a lot of people who wanted to be political players. The only person
I have ever known who actually became a political player is Ron
Paul, and he never had any intention of becoming a political player.
long, hard, thankless work. Not many people are cut out for it.
Those who seem to have the gift would be wise to content themselves
with a life of political defeats. The reason for this is clear:
political victories today are based on the politics of plunder.
It is best not to be associated in any way with the politics of
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2012 Gary North
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