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Let the Presidency Be Diminished


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 scandal, the presidency, indeed government itself, were diminished.

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” regulatory mills churn out their meddlesome rules with wild abandon.

Mr. Clinton continues to pursue his designs on the medical care system; he actually wants to add people to Medicare, just as everyone is acknowledging that it is doomed to bankruptcy. He has his eye on daycare 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, he would cripple production through taxes and restrictions. In spite of the 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.

The opinion-molding establishment is worried that scandals such as the current one make it tough for the president to exercise that 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 product 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.

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 “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 our own lives and situations. They can’t know what we know. And if they can’t know it, they can’t make plans for us.

If a scandal teaches that lesson and prompts us to diminish government in all its branches and aspects, it is well worth it.

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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.