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Don’t Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain


There has been something disconcerting in most of the commentary throughout the postelection controversy. This became palpable after the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ruled that George W. Bush had won the presidency.

I heard desperation in the voices of those who took to the airwaves to counsel Bush and Al Gore to say the “right things” in their victory and concession speeches, respectively. It was reminiscent of the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Oz thunders at Dorothy to ignore the little man behind the curtain. That is a scene pregnant (excuse the expression in light of the recent controversy) with meaning. A fraud is exposed, but he uses the fraudulent mechanism to maintain the scam. Oz might have spoken the great Groucho Marx line: “Who are you going to believe — me or your eyes?”

I have the feeling that the pundits are afraid that we the people will believe our eyes rather than them.

What conclusions are we likely to draw on our own? We might conclude that the “will of the people” mantra is balderdash. More people chose to do something else (vote for another candidate or stay home) than to vote for Bush. The same statement can be made for Gore.

Gore may go to sleep believing he “won the popular vote,” but facts intrude. Anyone who has seen the county breakdown of the nation realizes that Gore’s plurality came primarily from the urban centers that are full of government workers and others whose livelihoods also depend on the taxpayers. Bush drew his voters from the productive people of the country, without whom Gore’s supporters would have no one to loot.

There are lots of other problems with the popular-vote perspective. To name one: many states don’t count absentee ballots if there are not enough to change the result of the state vote. Since such ballots tend to favor Republicans, it is possible Bush won the popular vote.

But that is not the fundamental issue. Fundamental is the fallacy that elections reveal a collective will. Even when a candidate wins a majority of the votes, the will of the minority is impotent. It hardly makes sense to say that the losers’ votes counted. Counted for what? Wouldn’t it be more honest to say simply that the winners get their way and tough for the losers?

What the pundits don’t want us to realize is that what they call “democracy” is a humbug, like the Wizard of Oz. The civics textbooks tell us that it is a process by which the people effect their will, not only in who holds office but also in the policies their representatives will enact. This is key: the legitimacy of what presidents and congressmen do is said to derive from the people’s actions at the polls on election day.

But anyone who takes the time to look closely will know that is not so. The winners of elections often do the opposite of what their campaigns promised (“Read my lips”). Although officeholders facing reelection have some constraints on what they can do, they also have many ways to obscure their actions. The electoral process is not the engine of accountability it is cracked up to be. Major policies have been arrived at behind closed doors and buried in legislative bills. Even congressmen often don’t know what is in the omnibus bills they vote for. How is a busy private individual supposed to know?

Because the Constitution no longer functions as a restraint on federal power, to vote for someone today is to give him a virtual blank check to confiscate and regulate with near impunity. But the pundits won’t acknowledge that. They prefer the warm and cozy “will of the people” line.

Yet even they can’t help giving the game away. For them the closeness of the election means that President-elect Bush should jettison anything distinctive in his program — tax cuts, the beginning of Social Security privatization — and embrace everything his opponent favors, for example, forcing taxpayers to pay for prescription drugs. Shrinking government would be polarizing. Growing it would be unifying.

The game of democracy is rigged to promote intrusive government and the usurpation of liberty. Don’t ignore the man behind the curtain!

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.