Roger’s Rules

Our Masters in Washington

I am just back from a brief family trip to our nation’s capital. The efficient cause of our sojourn was a twelfth-night party at some friends’ in nearby McLean, Virginia, but we took the occasion to visit the Air and Space Museum, a reliable hit with our 13-year-old son and a source of wonder for his 4-year old sister. We also — that is, my son and I also — visited the International Spy Museum, an establishment I hadn’t known about before, meeting up later with the distaff side at the Natural History Museums (gems, butterflies, dinosaurs). Tootling around Washington, I was struck by — well, not by its prosperity, exactly, but by what is clearly a lavish outlay of funds — your funds, in fact. Everywhere I turned there were huge building cranes. In one spot, I counted seven over the space of a few blocks. It looked a little like a third world country suddenly flush from newly discovered mineral reserves of some sort. Which I suppose describes the situation in Washington accurately enough, except that for “mineral reserves” you need to substitute “deficit spending.” I remember meeting my friend Edward Shils several years ago in Washington: “My, they live well on our money,” he said. What would he say today, I wonder, when Washington has come more and more to resemble Versailles circa 1780.

I confess to feeling despondent about our political class — what Peter Schweizer, in his depressing and revelatory book Throw Them All Out, calls the PPC, the “Permanent Political Class.” Schweizer’s book provides lavish documentation for something Sarah Palin complained about a few months ago: that the people who go to Washington to be Public Servants tend to leave several years later (those who do leave) vastly richer than they arrived. How is it, for example, that Nancy Pelosi, who was helping to shape credit card legislation, made a 50 percent profit in two days from her $1-$5 million investment in Visa? Or that John Boehner profited so handsomely from real estate speculation along a highway route that he knew about before the general public? Why is it that congressmen are allowed to invest on the basis of insider knowledge when the same behavior would bring down the scrutiny of the SEC on us plebs?

Kevin Williamson has some characteristically intelligent things to say about this and other depressing facts of government financial life and its Wall Street friends in his National Review essay “Repo Men“:

Wall Street can do math, and the math looks like this: Wall Street + Washington = Wild Profitability. Free enterprise? Entrepreneurship? Starting a business making and selling stuff behind some grimy little storefront? You’d have to be a fool. Better to invest in political favors.

But it’s not only this spectacle of banana republic favoritism that is depressing. There is also the reality of what George Will calls “The Redistributionist Behemoth.” “Liberals,” Will notes,

have a rendezvous with regret. Their largest achievement is today’s redistributionist government. But such government is inherently regressive: It tends to distribute power and money to the strong, including itself.

Prominently including itself. That’s one of the disturbing ironies of Obama’s desire to “spread the wealth around.” Most of what’s spread around doesn’t find itself in the pockets of folks like Joe the Plumber but the bureaucrats who manage the distribution. Will has it exactly right:

Government becomes big by having big ambitions for supplanting markets as society’s primary allocator of wealth and opportunity. Therefore it becomes a magnet for factions muscular enough, in money or numbers or both, to bend government to their advantage.

And that’s not all. Just as the redistributionist imperative tends to boomerang, fattening not the needy but the greedy, so liberalism itself mutates into an illiberal, i.e., a coercive nanny. Everyone has had experience of this. The mystery is why it has attracted so little attention.

Not only does redistributionist government direct wealth upward; in asserting a right to do so, it siphons power into itself. A puzzling aspect of our politically contentious era is how little contention there is about the ethics of coercive redistribution by progressive taxation and other government “corrections” of social outcomes it considers unethical or unaesthetic.

Actually, the puzzle was illuminated long ago by Tocqueville, who explained it in his anatomy of “democratic despotism,” a despotism whose novelty is to have transformed tyranny into a process of infantilization. Tocqueville thought it was like the relation between a shepherd and his sheep. Sheep do not contend; they merely feed — until, of course, it’s shearing season — after which the feeders become the fed upon.

Something’s happening — maybe it already has happened — to the republic conceived in liberty. The Tea Party sounded the alarm in 2010 and there was a rustle-bustle of acknowledgment. Their voices seem oddly, ominously silent now. It is, as I say, depressing. But don’t let that make you quiescent: I have many months ago suggested an alternative: