You’ve got to hand it to politicians: They love their work. And though they spend relatively little time in our great deliberative chambers, they enjoy the general ambiance and the perks of being in politics so much that they only very rarely—say, after a conclusively damning sex scandal—decide it’s time to retire and yield gracefully to the younger generation. And sometimes not even then.
But what’s not to like? Beyond the ongoing pursuit of power and the daily enjoyment of luxuries that most Americans will never experience, there is the strange coupling, in the politician’s mind, with the idea that he’s doing good and invaluable work. It may not be the same as making something or building something or starting something (all of which politicians tend to look down upon as lowly, plebeian pursuits). But it is important nonetheless: America needs me, thinks a politician, protecting the people, telling all the individual regular dumb Americans what they can’t do.
This desire to restrain man’s dangerous natural impulses is the root of essentially all political activity. In the minds of most politicians, such restraint has no practical limit, because all human activity is basically dangerous and no risk is too trivial to be worth taking. If a young American out of high school or college is a keen, fresh young mind, sharp as a knife, then government is the piece of cork that gets stuck on the tip so the kiddies don’t hurt themselves.
You couldn’t pay a politician to stay home. Not that you’d be able to afford it anyway, given that the annual office expense account for an American senator is $3.7 million, or in practical terms, slightly more than twice what the average American will earn in his entire life.
No wonder politicians are so surprised to learn that, when you pay other people to stay home from their jobs, they gratefully avail themselves of the opportunity. Real work, done to earn a livelihood, is usually not fun. Hence the term “work.” And indeed, the lavish welfare spending prompted by the disastrous pandemic shutdowns has reached the point where a McDonald’s in Tampa is now offering people $50 just to show up for a job interview. Why work when the government is paying you very nearly as much (or more!) to stay home and watch TV?
Now, of course, the government isn’t really paying you, because the government doesn’t earn any money of its own. It has two basic sources of income: It can make money with a printing press, or it can take money away from other people. This combination sounds like a dangerous recipe to most of us. To the world of organized crime it is but an aspirational ideal. (From the government’s perspective, organized crime isn’t evil—it’s just competition.) But no gangster will ever be quite as successful a thief as a lifelong politician. Is a Nancy Pelosi or a Bernie Sanders—to name just two politicians who have amassed millions of dollars over a lifetime in “public service”—really much more than a crook who holds press conferences?
When I was a very young man, I was a staunch Republican and I thought that there were good and honorable reasons for what Republican politicians did. I trusted them. And it could be quite an exercise working out in my brain or explaining to my Democratic friends (95 percent of my acquaintanceship) why certain earmarks and pork-barrel projects were okay simply because they came from the “party of fiscal conservatism.”
Therefore it took a certain open-mindedness (if I say so myself) ultimately to reach the conclusion that the saying “there’s more that unites us than divides us” is absolutely true about politicians: Democrats and Republicans are largely united in their desire to boss you around and steal your money. It could be argued that there is nothing on this earth so contemptible as the desire to spend one’s life bossing other people around.
Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Almanac, speaking as Poor Richard, that “it would be thought a hard government that should tax its people one-tenth part of their time, to be employed in its service.” There you have it: A 10 percent tax rate would be excessive. What do you think Franklin would make of the current situation? I pay a third of my salary in taxes, which means that one out of every three working days of my life I am working for the government, as though in indentured servitude. The government is stealing my life.
Worse still: If you subtract my cost of living (rent, food, and clothes), the government is taking 60 or 70 percent of my disposable income. Imagine what your life would be like if, instead, nine days out of 10 (as Franklin thought would be a hard situation) you could work for yourself as a free man! Imagine 19 days out of 20. It may be a dream, but it did lead to a revolution once before . . .
Taxes can only go up and never down, just as government can only get larger and never smaller, if no action—external action—is taken to restrain them. Neither party, no matter how good a game it talks, is going to vote to restrict their power as a governing class: From their point of view, it is not Republican versus Democrat. It is people versus government. They’re the government and they enjoy it because—who wouldn’t?
Wanting to be a politician should disqualify anyone from holding office. And it’s too bad we can’t mandate that. We might start at least with term limits. And while it’s patently obvious that Congress would never enact such a thing, we could do it ourselves with a constitutional amendment. Of course, we would have to start by persuading two-thirds of state legislatures to approve the idea, and they won’t want to because term limits immediately would rebound on them. There are, in fact, 15 states that have term limits already. But Americans voted in favor of term limits in six more states, only to see their will rejected by their own governments: The state legislatures in two cases voted to nullify the express will of the voters, and in the other four states courts nullified the votes for “technical reasons.”
A career politician, like a war profiteer, deserves nothing but lasting obloquy and the contempt of his fellow man. In America, there should be no such thing as a career politician. The longer a man sits in power, the greater his abuse of power, and the more he is inclined to forget his responsibilities.
We might do well to remember what the Declaration of Independence tells us, and what Congress in fact claims to believe: That governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. And that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to those ends—that is, destructive to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it. Perhaps a new constitutional convention is called for. Perhaps a new constitution is called for too—one that, after saying the government is limited to the eighteen expressly enumerated powers of Article 1, adds: “And this time we really mean it.”