Monday, April 07, 2008

Political Power

I’ve often thought about this as the source of real problems in our political/social system in this country.  There’s a general sense that we need to solve the problem of special interests using money to improperly influence the government, or at least the legislative process.   At the same time, there’s a feeling among those of certain economic classes that people who make a lot of money (I mean like hundreds of millions) for some reason don’t deserve that kind of money. 

Arnold Kling in TCG Daily:

      It is misleading to compare legislative budgets with the wealth of Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, because legislators are spending money on all of us. They are not spending money on themselves.

      However, America's wealthiest people do not spend their money on themselves, either. They could not possibly do so. As smart as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are, they cannot figure out how to spend all of their money. They will end up giving most of it away.

      What the super-wealthy have that the merely wealthy do not have is more financial power. When it comes to deciding which causes are going to receive money, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have more power than other people. Which is exactly the power that politicians have.

The problem, as the article points out, is that politicians have far more of this type of “power” than any wealthy person, to orders of magnitude.  The sums of money that politicians, especially federal politicians, have control over is too tempting for players on the national and local scene. 

      The monetary comparisons only scratch the surface of the inequality and excesses of political power in the United States. Bill Gates might be said to control as much money as a member of the County Council where I live. But he does not have the power to, say, tell the people of the County where they can and cannot smoke, or to tell local businesses what wages they must pay their workers, or to decide whether a local concert venue will be devoted to folk music or to rock.

      Wealthy people do not control the curriculum in our children's schools. Politicians do. Wealthy people do not set licensing requirements for everything from doctors to interior designers to hair stylists to manicurists. Politicians do.

      Inequality and excess political power is getting worse at a faster rate than inequality and excess in monetary income. As I pointed out in We Need 250 states, political power is far more concentrated and insulated from the voters than was the case 200 years ago.

      I feel awkward and defensive when the subject of economic inequality comes up. The fact is that I cannot say that I feel comfortable with the levels of inequality and excess that exist in our society.

      However, I am loathe to call inequality a problem that requires a government solution. I do not see how it solves the problem to take power away from wealthy people who have a lot of it in order to increase the power of politicians who have far more of it.

      What the American people really should feel awkward and defensive about is the level of inequality and excess of political power. Instead of asking ourselves what we can do about Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, we should be asking ourselves about what we can do about the Clintons and the Spitzers. Those who want more and more power should be our biggest concern.

And a concern it should be.  We’ve learned, by way of laws like McCain-Feingold, that you can’t take the money out of politics.  It will find a way in.  My belief is that the only way to rid our life of politically tainted money thrown around by special interests is to reduce the power that politicians wield.  That would, of course, mean that the size and scope of government must decrease, and that means that functions such as health care, education and the like, would have to disappear, and I fear that ain’t happening anytime soon.

Truthfully, though I might favor one candidate for President or Congress over another for his/her economic sanity, neither party has an abundance of members who understand that we all suffer when government grows in it’s scope and power. 

When’s the revolt?  Anyone?

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