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Politics by Incantation


Americans pride themselves on being modern and sophisticated, but in some important matters, we are no more advanced than primitive animists in southern Sudan.

To see this, just witness so much of what passes for public affairs. Leaders and led alike behave as if words shape reality. Legislation is incantation. Pronouncements by politicians and editorialists are sheer wishful thinking. But people treat them as though they change things.

Take the matter of firearms. Self-righteous officeholders act as though their incantations about trigger locks, background checks, and age limits will actually do something about criminal behavior. Such measures haven’t worked in the past, but that does not deter the political witch doctors.

How many times have we heard that thanks to the Brady law thousands of felons were thwarted in their attempts to acquire guns? Nothing of the kind has occurred. If a lawbreaker can’t get a gun at the local sporting-goods shop, he’ll go into the black market or break into someone’s home to get one. He hasn’t been thwarted, merely inconvenienced. That doesn’t stop the intellectual primitives who run the government and anti-gun organizations from claiming that they are doing something about violent crime.

The witch doctors are now going through the same ritual in response to the recent school shootings. Have a few kids obtained guns and shot fellow students? Let’s mandate gun locks and background checks at gun shows and raise the age limit. Matter closed. We can feel good. The proper incantation has been uttered.

That the new regulations being pushed would not have prevented the incidents of the last few years doesn’t really matter. The right words have been spoken. No more needs to be done-until the next incident, when we’ll take a ride around this block again.

It hasn’t yet dawned on the gun controllers that people who would get guns to break laws would break laws to get guns. Gun locks, background checks, and higher age limits will probably not stop a single crime from being committed. But they may well keep someone from stopping a crime. Privately held guns are used more often to prevent crime than to commit it.

But don’t expect to hear that acknowledged during the incantations of Bill Clinton or Sarah Brady.

The other favorite issue of the witch doctors today is the war on Yugoslavia. Here the politicians and pundits have had a big time shaping reality with their words. The president and his cheerleaders tell us incessantly that the United States went to war to ensure the safe return to Kosovo of ethnic Albanian refugees. This time, their words are intended to change the past, not the future, since before the war, there were no refugees outside of Kosovo. That all happened after the NATO bombs started dropping.

Their words are also designed to make us think Slobodan Milosevic was made to cry “uncle” thanks to 70 days of bombing. Air power works! The problem is that the terms accepted by Milosevic on June 3 are about what he said he was willing to accept before the bombing started. It was NATO that gave in by abandoning demands that it have free run of Yugoslavia and that the occupation force be under, not the UN’s, its command.

The incantations will be calculated to turn a muddled resolution, if it ever comes about, into a clear-cut victory for the “civilized” nations. That’s another commonly used magic word; it’s handy for distracting us from NATO’s foreseeable killing of civilians and destruction of nonmilitary infrastructure. Expect to be told over and over that U.S. policy will bring about a free, united, and democratic Europe. Naive citizens might think that only Europeans can do that. But when they hear the incantation enough times, they’ll start to believe it.

The news media are good at repeating the mantras. The Wall Street Journal ‘s editorial page received the news of Serbia’s acquiescence with the words “The alliance stopped ethnic cleansing on Europe’s soil.”

That will be news to the hundreds of thousands who left Kosovo after the bombing started. But that’s all right. The magic words aren’t for them. They’re for the benighted masses here in America.

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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.