CATO Article The Problem is Politics by PJ O'Rourke

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					A Quarterly
on Liberty
Spring 2008
Volume 6
Number 2

The Problem
Is Politics

                 ell, I wish I had better news for you, but
                 the barbarians are at the gates. We are
                 besieged by pagans—savage, brutish
                 worshippers of big government. Theirs
is not even a golden calf. They’ve abandoned the Gold
Standard. They worship the taxing and spending of a
fiat god, all the more dangerous for being both false
and imaginary.
                                                              P. J. O’Rourke is America's leading political
   Now, we thought Ronald Reagan, our Charles Mar-            satirist and an H. L. Mencken research
tel, had stopped the pillaging hordes of Jimmy Carter         fellow at the Cato Institute. A former editor
at the Battle of Poitiers—also known as the 1980 elec-        of National Lampoon, he has written for
                                                              American Spectator, Esquire, the
tion. Even the heathen slime Bill Clinton said, “The          New Republic, and Rolling Stone. Now
era of big government is over.” We thought we’d won.          a correspondent for the Atlantic, his most
   We were wrong. They’re back. And they want to sac-         recent book is On The Wealth of Nations.
                                                              O’Rourke gave this speech at the 2008 Cato
rifice us and all our worldly goods on the blood              Benefactor Summit.
drenched altar of politics. These lesser breeds bow
down to four ton senators, to cloven hoofed congress-
men, to presidential candidates stinking of collectivist
brimstone and crowned with horns of socialism.
                    T           heirs is a Satanist civics.
                                They will sell their souls in
                                the belief that government
                    can heal the sick, raise the dead, make
                                                                to quit. That’s why we need a Republi-
                                                                can president—not because Republi-
                                                                cans are good but because we need
                                                                gridlock. I love gridlock. Gridlock
                    the old feel young, and make the            means government can’t do things.
                    young go out and vote.                          The two most frightening words in
                        They hate our freedom. The part of      Washington are “bipartisan consen-
                    our freedom that they hate the most is      sus.” Bipartisan consensus is when my
                    our free market capitalism. But capital-    doctor and my lawyer agree with my
                    ism is one of the most important in-        wife that I need help.
                    ventions in human history. If it weren’t        Bipartisan consensus—like the
                    for debt and equity, all of the innova-     stimulus package that has been deliv-
                    tors, manufacturers, and businessmen        ered to us courtesy of Congress and the
                    who have brought prosperity to the          president. A $168 billion stimulus
                    free world would have to get their          package that is supposed to change the
                    money the way the rest of us do—by          trajectory of a $13 trillion economy.
                    asking their wives.                             Now, even somebody who flunked
                        So the worshipers of big govern-        high school physics—and I did—
                    ment are back with their lies and their     can tell you that the energy of $168
                    empty promises. And what do we do           billion is not sufficient to budge $13
                    about it? I don’t know. I’m too stupid      trillion worth of inertia. It’s like trying
                    to answer that question.                    to use Dennis Kucinich to push
                        But in fairness to myself, I’m not      Hillary Clinton off the Democratic
                    just stupid. I am a student of stupidity.   campaign platform.
                    I am a political reporter.                      We could wind up with a Democrat-
                        It occurs to me that America could      ic president. We will wind up with a
                    wind up with a Democratic president.        Democratic Congress. Now, I am a
                    This scares me. Not because I hate De-      Republican. I’m a rotten Republican
                    mocrats—although I do, come to think        quite a lot of the time, but a Republi-
                    of it—but because a strong Democratic       can nonetheless. And as a Republican,
                                                                         I’ve got to say that the 2006

“         If you’re electing Democrats
          to control government
          spending, then you’re mar-
          rying Angelina Jolie for her
                                                                         midterm elections made me
                                                                         very upset at the Republicans. I
                                                                         mean, Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney,
                                                                         Randy “Duke” Cunningham,
                                                                         Tom DeLay, Mark Foley. The
                                                                         electorate was almost too nau-
          brains.                                                        seated to make it to the polls to
                                                                         vote Democratic.
                                                                             It took a Democratic major-
                    president and a strong Democratic           ity in the House of Representatives 40
                    Congress could put an end to partisan       years—from 1954 to 1994—to get that
                    bickering in Washington and result in       corrupt and arrogant, and the Republi-
                    politicians from both parties working       cans did it in just 12. And people say
                    together to solve America’s problems.       that we Republicans don’t have a lot
                    And then we’re really screwed.              on the ball. The Republicans thought
                       I have been covering politics for 38     they had the House of Representatives
                    years. Trust me: we don’t want politics     so well redistricted that the only places

2   •   Cato’s Letter SPRING 2008
where you could elect a Demo-
crat were the parts of New Or-
leans that are still underwater.
Republicans forgot. They for-
got that there is such a thing as
                                   “         Government controlled
                                             health care is going to
                                             drive the best people out
                                             of the business. Who
an angry voter. And hell, I’m
one, and I am a Republican.                  wants to spend years
    Republicans deserve to
lose. But do we deserve the De-
mocrats? Well, the Democrats
are going to produce more
                                             studying to be a doctor,
                                             just to become a govern-
                                             ment bureaucratic hack?
ethanol. Although, up in the
back hills of Kentucky, they’ve
been making high octane                       school sex promise: I will pull out in
stuff out of corn mash for years and I        time, honest dear.
can’t see that it has done their econo-           Meanwhile, the Republicans have
my a whole lot of good. Under the De-         got John McCain. Everybody loves
mocrats, the government will negoti-          John McCain. Everybody respects John
ate with drug companies for Medicare          McCain: He’s tough. He’s consistent.
drug prices. If the government shows          He’s wrong. John thinks the war in
the same hard-headed, tight-fisted            Iraq is a good idea; the electorate does-
bargaining savvy negotiating drug             n’t. It’s like McCain’s slogan is “wrong
prices that it shows negotiating de-          and strong.”
fense contracts, Preparation H will               Meanwhile, there is the Democratic
cost $400.                                    side of things, where Barack Obama
    Best of all, there is ethics reform.      may be altering the whole political
Congressmen will no longer be able to         equilibrium. Barack Obama is an indi-
get a meal from a lobbyist unless the         cation that America has reached an im-
congressman brings a note from his            portant benchmark in race relations. It
doctor showing that he is bulimic and         is now officially more important to be
the meal will be returned.                    cute than it is to be white.
    There is only one thing that gives            And Barack Obama is cute. He’s
me hope as a Republican, and that is          very cute. And he’s nice. And it has
the Democrats. It’s going to be hard to       been a long time since any political
do a worse job running America than           party has had the cute, nice vote
the Republicans have, but if anybody          sewn up.
can do it, it’s the Democrats.                    The problem for Barack is that he
    Two substantive political issues are      just doesn’t have much political
the federal budget deficit and the war        stature. But there is a sort of Disney
in Iraq. Now, if you’re electing Democ-       factor in American politics. Think of
rats to control government spending,          America’s politicians. Think of them
then you’re marrying Angelina Jolie for       all as the Seven Dwarves. They’re all
her brains.                                   short. They’re short on ethics. They’re
    This leaves the Democrats with one        short on common sense. They’re short
real issue: Iraq. And so far the best that    on experience. They’re short on some-
any Democratic presidential candidate         thing. But we keep thinking one of
has been able to manage with Iraq is to       those dwarves is going to save our
make what I think of as the high              Snow White butt.

                                                                          SPRING 2008 Cato’s Letter • 3
                         We’ve got Dopey right now. We had         they’ve got in Canada, a nation that is
                     Sleazy before him. Grumpy lost in             broke from health care spending, even
                     2004. Sleepy was great in the eighties        though Canada is a sparsely populated
                     but he’s dead. So how about Obama?            country with a shortage of gunshot
                         Which leaves us with Hillary. She’s       wounds, crack addicts, and huge tort
                     going to reform health care. I guess          judgments.
                     health care being a key political issue,          What are we as Americans sup-
                     it’s a sign that my baby boom genera-         posed to learn from a medical system
                     tion is finally maturing.                     devoted to hockey injuries, sinus infec-
                         Now, sure, we’re still as self absorbed   tions, and from trying to pronounce
                     and inward looking as we ever were, but       French vowels?
                     we’re staring up a                                                     Well, we’ll learn
                     colonoscopy scope                                                  to fix prices. Because
                     now, instead of gaz-                                               that’s all that health
                     ing at our navels.                                                 care reform really is.
                         Hey, memo to                                                   It’s just price-fixing.
                     Hillary: You already                                               Price-fixing works
                     reformed health                                                    great in Cuba and
                     care 15 years ago.                                                 North Korea and
                         Just the outline                                               in rent-controlled
                     of Hillary’s 1993                                                  apartments in New
                     health care reform                                                 York. Everybody
                     plan was 1,400                                                     knows how easy it is
                     pages—just the out-                                                to find an inexpen-
                     line. You could                                                    sive apartment in a
                     stand on it to paint                                               nice neighborhood
                     the ceiling.                                                       in New York City.
                         And of course                                                      Another thing
                     there is a cheaper                                                 that gets me about
                     way to make health                                                 Hillary is this: why is
                     care less expensive, a simpler way to         price-fixing such a great thing when
                     make health care less expensive: Just         she does it, but if a couple of business-
                     make it worse. And I think Hillary can        men get together on a golf course
                     do that.                                      that’s a big crime?
                         Because government controlled                 Contrary to all the rules of political
                     health care is going to drive the best        humor, I just hate politics. Politics
                     people out of the business. Who wants         stink. Think about how we use the
                     to spend years studying to be a doctor,       word “politics.” Are office politics ever
                     just to become a government bureau-           a good thing? When somebody plays
                     cratic hack?                                  politics to get a promotion, does he de-
                         Some day you will be wheeled in for       serve it? When we call a coworker a
                     a heart bypass operation, and a sur-          “real politician,” is that a compliment?
                     geon will be the person who is now be-        Politics stink. And to my mind, liber-
                     hind the counter when you renew your          tarianism is a room deodorizer. It’s try-
                     car registration at the department of         ing to keep that bad smell of politics
                     motor vehicles.                               out of home, school, and office.
                         If we’re not careful, we’re going to          But let’s make a distinction be-
                     wind up with a health care system like        tween politics and politicians. Be-

4   •   Cato’s Letter SPRING 2008
cause there are a lot of people
who are under a misappre-                  The key ingredient of
hension that the problem is
certain politicians who stink.
                                           politics is the idea that
They say that if you impeach               all of society’s ills can be
George Bush, everything will               cured politically. It’s like
be fine. Or if you nab Ted
Kennedy for a DUI, the na-
                                           a cookbook where the
tion’s problems will be
solved. But unfortunately it’s
just not that simple.
                                           recipe for everything
                                           is to fry it. The fruit
                                           cocktail is fried.
    The problem is not really
politicians. The problem is
politics. Politicians are chefs—
some good, some bad—but politics is        level where they are good for everyone.
road kill. The problem isn’t the cook.     No matter how foolish, irresponsible,
The problem is the cookbook. The           selfish, grasping, or vile everyone may
key ingredient of politics is the idea     be, politics seeks fairness for them all.
that all of society’s ills can be cured    I do not. I am here to speak in favor
politically. It’s like a cookbook where    of unfairness.
the recipe for everything is to fry it.        I have a 10 year old at home, and
The fruit cocktail is fried. The soup is   she is always saying, “That’s not fair.”
fried. The salad is fried. So is the ice   When she says that, I say, “Honey,
cream and cake. And your pinot noir        you’re cute; that’s not fair. Your fami-
is rolled in breadcrumbs and dunked        ly is pretty well off; that’s not fair.
in the deep fat fryer. It is just no way   You were born in America; that’s not
to cook up public policy. Politics is      fair. Honey, you had better pray to
greasy. Politics is slippery. Politics     God that things don’t start getting
can’t tell the truth.                      fair for you.”
    But I don’t blame the politicians          After all my time covering politics, I
for this. Because just think what the      know a lot of politicians. They’re intel-
truth would sound like on the cam-         ligent. They’re diligent. They’re talent-
paign stump. Even a little, bitty bit of   ed. I like them. I count them as friends.
truth. “No, I can’t fix public educa-      But when these friends of mine take
tion. The problem isn’t funding or         their intelligence, their diligence, and
teachers unions or lack of vouchers or     their talent and they put these into the
absence of computer equipment in           service of politics, ladies and gentle-
the classroom. The problem is your         men, when they do that, they turn into
damned kids.”                              leeches upon the commonwealth.
    Now, that’s just not going to work.        They are dogs chasing the cat of
    There is only one number that          freedom. They are cats tormenting the
matters in politics. And you may           mouse of responsibility. They are mice
think that that’s the number of votes,     gnawing on the insulated wiring of in-
but that’s not the number. The num-        dividualism. They are going to hell in a
ber that matters in politics is the low-   hand basket, and they stole that basket
est common denominator. It is the          from you. They are the ditch carp in
avowed purpose of politics to bring        the great river of democracy. And this
the policies of our nation down to a       is what one of their friends says.

                                                                       SPRING 2008 Cato’s Letter • 5
                                    Cato Scholar Profile:
                                    ANDREW J. COULSON
                                    ANDREW J. COULSON is the director of Cato’s Center for
                                    Educational Freedom. He is the author of Market Education:
                                    The Unknown History. Coulson’s writings have appeared in
                                    the Journal of Research in Teaching of English and Edu-
                                    cation Policy Analysis Archives as well as the New York
                                    Post, Seattle Times, Detroit Free Press, and Wall Street
                                    Journal. He currently serves on the Advisory Council of the
                                    E. G. West Centre for Market Solutions in Education at the Uni-
                                    versity of Newcastle, U.K.

What inspired you to leave Microsoft for the         Why are tax credits superior to vouchers?
world of public policy?                              The key benefit of tax credits is that
I wanted to do something with more of a so-          they reduce compulsion. Under vouchers,
cial purpose, and I started researching educa-       everyone has to fund every kind of school;
tion in my spare time. I soon realized that          that produces battles over what kinds
much was already known about pedagogical             of schools should get vouchers—for inst-
methods and curriculum. The problem was-             ance over the voucher funding of conserva-
n’t that we didn’t know what effective educa-        tive Islamic schools in the Netherlands.
tional practices looked like; the problem was        With tax credits, people are either spending
that we didn’t have a system that could reli-        their own money on their own children,
ably replicate those practices.                      or they are choosing the scholarship
                                                     organization that gets their donation.
What are the most important issues facing            No one has to pay for education they find
American education today?                            objectionable.
Problem one is that our current monopoly
school systems lack incentives to be effective,      What is the status of efforts to promote school
efficient, or responsive to families. Problem        choice in America?
two is that surprisingly few people under-           They are numerous, lively, and growing.
stand the systemic nature of problem one, be-
lieving that the monopoly can be “fixed” if we       How will the Center for Educational Freedom
only try harder—or by centralizing it even           continue to work to improve American
more at the national level.                          education?
                                                     We will continue to arm school choice
In your view, what is the most promising             groups around the country with research,
proposal for reform in education policy?             model legislation, and fiscal analysis tools to
The best realistic policy we’ve developed is a       help them more powerfully make the case
combination of personal use tax credits and          for market education, we will relentlessly de-
scholarship donation tax credits. Basically, if      flate the claims of would-be central planners
you pay for the education of your own or             by revealing the failure of their chosen poli-
someone else’s children, we cut your taxes.          cies domestically and abroad, and we will
Cato published model legislation along those         continue reaching out directly to the public
lines last December and we’ll soon be releas-        via books, op-eds, and other media, explain-
ing a tool that estimates its fiscal impact. In      ing why the value of educational freedom
all five states we’ve looked at so far, this pro-    goes far beyond improving test scores and
posal would generate substantial savings.            saving money.

6   •   Cato’s Letter SPRING 2008
It’s Never Too
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                                                                       SPRING 2008 Cato’s Letter • 7
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