TCS Daily

La Cage Aux Pols

By Tim Worstall - August 18, 2005 12:00 AM

My reaction to politicians tends to wander around a little between what I consider to be the only three possible options. Laugh at them, ignore them, or experience a (so far repressed) desire to have them tap dancing on air from the nearest lamp-post. Theres no grand philosophic underpinning to this attitude as I dont do philosophy, partly because I dont understand what people are talking about. Theres also the rather unkind thought that while engineers, in the last few thousand years, moved on from pointy sticks to bridges, skyscrapers, spaceships and the pop-tart, those who study more weighty matters are still pondering the nature of reality, just as their forebears were those thousands of years ago. It simply seems obvious to me that politicians cant actually do anything very well.

One little snippet that brought on one of those red curtain of blood moments (RCOB, Orig. K du Toit) was this from the New York Times:


This case harks back to a 19th-century attempt by Washington to break up some reservations and assign land to individual Indians instead. But the new property owners were not permitted to manage any timber, oil or mineral deposits. Instead, those assets were kept in trust for them by a paternalistic federal government. And those trusts have been criminally mishandled.


Records have been lost and destroyed, and Indians who should have enjoyed the benefit of the valuable leases on their property have died. Ms. Cobell's successes in court -- and repeated contempt citations against the Interior Department -- have illuminated the ongoing deceit over these accounts, but they have not yet resulted in real paybacks for the defrauded Indians. In recent years, Congress has addressed the issue only as part of an effort to void any attempt at a real historical accounting.


That the Bureau of Indian Affairs is a mess weve known for some time. At least since 1999 when Mssrs. Babbitt, Gover and Rubin were found in contempt of court for not (being unable to?) providing an accounting for a centurys worth of money. And three months later the Government admitted that it had been destroying relevant evidence while the case was going on. Actually, longer than that, for it was in 1915 that Congress reported:


"...great wealth in the form of Indian funds [...] an inducement to fraud, corruption, and institutional incompetence almost beyond the possibility of comprehension."


That it takes 90 years to correct an obvious injustice would appear to be a good time to start thinking about whether the existence of politicians and the bureaucracies they create are in fact worthwhile.


Jim Glass has noted a couple of times that this sort of thing tends to cause some sort of logical disconnect in those who favor greater government involvement in our lives. When the Professors DeLong or Krugman or the Times itself (often quite correctly) point to something that is being done badly by those who rule us it never quite seems to occur that perhaps those who rule us shouldnt be trying to do that specific thing. Perhaps it just isnt possible for there to be an efficient centralized method of doing whatever it is. As Glass points out:


Here's a simple irony Paul Krugman will never understand:
Milton Friedman and the small-government types on the right take Paul Krugman's complaints about the character of government much more seriously than Paul Krugman does.
That's why they want small government. [...]
Heck, I take Krugman's complaints about government more seriously than Krugman does. Politicians operate by consolidating power, rewarding friends, granting favors for favors received ... Yup, that's what they do! That's why I don't want to give them 11 points more of GDP (65% more) to play with.
But Krugman, while lecturing us ceaselessly about the evils and incompetence of the politicians in Washington, does want to give it to them. Go figure that out.


As ever, Uncle Milt (to be more precise, the Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman but one can be too formal about ones summer reading, right?) hits the nail on the head in this extract from Free to Choose:


This revolution in the role of government has been accompanied, and largely produced, by an achievement in public persuasion that must have few rivals. Ask yourself what products are currently least satisfactory and have shown the least improvement over time. Postal service, elementary and secondary schooling, railroad passenger transport would surely be high on the list. Ask yourself which products are the most satisfactory and have improved the most. Household appliances, television and radio sets, hi-fi equipment, computers, and, we would surely add, supermarkets and shopping centers would surely come high on that list.


We are then invited to consider which of the above are provided by a helpful, enlightened and beneficial government and which by the heartless money-grubbers of the free market. Tough call isnt it?


Ignoring their honeyed promises when they claim they can solve our problems would therefore seem to be a suitable response to politicians.


Laughter? Try this one.


An anti-war protester who has maintained a 24-hour-a-day vigil outside parliament for four years can stay because of a mistake in the drafting of a new law designed to stop him and other protesters from demonstrating there.


Three judges decided by a 2-1 majority in the high court that legislation brought in to control demonstrations around the Houses of Parliament did not apply to Brian Haw.


To give you a little background. Mr. Haw -- objectionable, mildly barmy, an obsessive and intensely irritating -- has been living in Parliament Square for the past four years showering abuse on any random passing politician (or in general, any random passing member of the general public) on the subject of Iraq. In order to stop this appalling breach of the peace, to put a halt to this outrage (think about it for a moment, you cant have random members of the public hurling epithets at politicians, people might find out the truth!) an addition is made to the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act to ban demonstrations in the areas around Parliament without prior permission from the police. Clearly a serious matter this, denying 60 million people the right to make their views known in order to get rid of one nuisance, however obsessive or irritating. There was, however, one mild problem. Those politicians, those people so important that their lives should not be disturbed by the more vivid parts of the Anglo Saxon vocabulary, were not in fact able to draft the law properly.


The new rules state that, from August 1, anyone wanting to demonstrate in the area must have authorisation from the police "when the demonstration starts". Mr Haw's lawyers pointed out that his demonstration had started four years ago and argued that he did not have to apply for authorisation, even though the law was targeted at him.


As Haw has been there for four years he argued that he was continuing, not starting a demonstration and thus was not covered, the High Court agreeing. What an excellent result, eh? Pass a law to control a trivial nuisance, abolish the right of an entire nation to tell the rulers what they think of them and fail to control that trivial nuisance.


To truly crank up the absurdity one has to look to Tim Irelands experience when he went to protest the law not allowing him to protest on its first day in force. He is handed a leaflet by the police outlining the law and he finds that:


"We believe that you may be, or are about to be, involved in a demonstration located within an area subject to the provisions of the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. The map on the reverse of this leaflet clearly defines the area concerned."


So, without reading further, I turned to the map - and then discovered that people could not keep and read this notice without being willing accomplices to a violation of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.


Yes, the police had nicked the map from a copyrighted work, the entire government apparently incapable of either asking for permission to use it or providing a suitable map of their own.


I think the basis of my attitude to politicians can be seen clearly now. There are only three valid options, derision, hatred or ignoring them in the hope that theyll go away. Others may come to Libertarianism by other routes but for me its just life, a natural part of the way the world works. Politicians cant actually do what they promise to do as they are incompetent. Thus we shouldnt ask them to do anything very much.


Tim Worstall is a TCS contributor living in Europe. Find more of his writing here.


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