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The Politics of Scandal


The hand-wringing over President Clinton’s extracurricular activities is misplaced. Whatever else can be said about what Mr. Clinton did or didn’t do, we can say this: it would be no tragedy if, as a result of the scandals, the presidency, indeed government itself, were diminished. Quite the contrary.

Pundits and others have been heard to say that it is too bad that such episodes distract the president and the Congress from attending to the country’s business. That misses an important point: The country’s business is none of the government’s business.

Over the years, the power of government to interfere with our peaceful activities has grown relentlessly. Government routinely does things today that would have appalled Americans only a few generations ago. There is hardly anything that the government does not tax or regulate. And, led by President Clinton, it wants to do more. The government is spending a larger percentage of our incomes than it has in some time. Tax revenues flow into Washington like water flowing downhill. The “independent” and unconstitutional regulatory mills churn out their meddlesome rules with wild abandon.

Mr. Clinton continues to pursue his designs on the medical care system — with full Republican cooperation. He actually wants to add people to Medicare, just as everyone is acknowledging that it is doomed to bankruptcy. He has his eye on day care as well. Environmental protection has been a cover for all manner of property takings and regulation. In the name of preventing a global warming that is demonstrably not happening (and would be benign if it were), he would cripple production through taxes and restrictions. In spite of the mass carnage caused by the war on drugs, he wants to step up the ruthless persecution of people who peacefully consume disapproved substances. Perhaps most important, the president can take us into war without the authorization of Congress or the American people. The near war with Iraq, which someday soon could become an actual war, is just the latest example.

The opinion-molding establishment is worried that scandals such as the current ones make it tough for the president to exercise all his power. Listen to the New York Times:

“The country faces pivotal domestic and foreign policy decisions that require energetic focused Presidential leadership. Whether Mr. Clinton can provide it will help determine whether the state of the nation remains as sound and prosperous in the months ahead as it is today.”

This is an insult to every American. The soundness and prosperity of the nation are the products of the energetic focus of private citizens in their personal and professional lives. Government’s only choice is to harass us or get out of the way. Unfortunately people believe the president is responsible for any success in the economy. That’s why so many of them are indifferent about Mr. Clinton’s misbehavior and lies. “He’s doing a good job” gets him off the hook.

The Times goes on:

“Without a powerful push from the White House, it is hard to imagine another agenda gaining ground that would stress investment in mass-transit systems, pollution controls, education, basic research and other programs that would enhance the economy and quality of life in America in the decades ahead.”

Exactly — except those measures would not enhance the quality of life. They would add more dead weight to the market process and make it less able to produce affluence. The marketplace is amazingly resilient; it has — we have — managed to withstand a long train of government abuses. But there are limits to that resilience. Mr. Clinton and the rest of Washington seem intent on testing those limits.

Government is long in need of being denied the power to control our peaceful pursuits. The people who run the government won’t relinquish that power themselves. Citizens are understandably too busy raising their families and living their lives to concentrate on the mysterious ways of government, especially since their one vote each means so little.

In light of all this, maybe a scandal is what it takes to accomplish what we so badly need to accomplish: getting the government out of our lives. A scandal might remind the American people that politicians are no better than they are — and usually a lot worse. It might remind them that political “leaders” are in no position to lead, not only because they possess no moral advantage, but also because they lack the specific knowledge that each of us possesses about his own life and situation. They can’t know what we know; they, like us, can’t know what we will know tomorrow. And if they can’t know it, they can’t make plans for us.

If scandals teach that lesson and prompt us to diminish government in all its branches and aspects, they are well worth it. But will it? I am not optimistic — which brings up another aspect of the scandals.

The First Lady has charged that it is just the consequence of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Many people laughed at that. But let’s not dismiss it so fast. She overstates the case, of course. Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and Kathleen Willey are not right-wingers. Mr. Clinton is a masher who doesn’t exercise self-control. But it is undeniable that, although Mr. Clinton has provided the kindling, what we call the right wing is assiduously fanning the flames of scandal.

What I’m wondering is why conservatives are bothering to do this. Let’s give them their best scenario: the cascading charges, including perjury and suborning of perjury, culminate in Mr. Clinton’s resignation or impeachment and conviction (all unlikely). So what? Would liberty and the limitation of power (presumably, that’s what conservatives would say they are after) have been advanced one iota? Will having Al Gore elevated to the presidency advance liberty? Even if it helps Republicans in the 2000 election, where is the progress? I can’t think of a single potential Republican presidential candidate who would shrink the size of government. They all want to prosecute the war on people who want to use drugs; most of them would bomb Baghdad; none of them talk about radically cutting government spending. Even Steve Forbes, often described as “libertarian-oriented,” wants to cut government only in comparison to the size of the economy.

That’s not good enough. The major tentacles of the state need to be lopped off — and that’s just during the first year.

The Republicans are uninterested in such things. Conservative intellectuals are even worse. William Bennett and William Kristol, to take the best examples, are downright hostile to individual freedom and rights. They put “national greatness” far ahead of liberty. Their heroes are Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, two Republicans who desecrated the Jeffersonian vision. (These guys also revere Roosevelt II, as H.L. Mencken unfondly called FDR.)

The upshot is that the Clinton scandal reveals, for those who did not already know it, how shallow the right wing is. To appropriate Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland, there is no there there. It is bankrupt, vacuous. That was F.A. Hayek’s point in his great essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” (in The Constitution of Liberty ). He wrote:

“By [conservatism’s] very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing…. I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake.”

I have not read a more accurate indictment of conservatism. Liberty is the ball, and we must never take our eyes off it. Maybe the Clinton scandals will cause some people to question the entire rotten statist edifice. I doubt it. Liberty will triumph when people learn its true value. Having been born relatively free in a country with a libertarian revolutionary heritage, most people take freedom for granted. That is one reason we need an open flow of immigrants. They don’t take freedom for granted, and therefore they are potential reminders to native Americans that liberty is no sure thing.

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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.