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Why Honor Politicians?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, February 24, 2004 by

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Once, when my son was in elementary school, they had some kind of special event celebrating the achievements of various students—I can't recall just what the festivities were all about. What I do recall vividly is that the principal had invited a local politician to head up the feast, to make a keynote address, some kind of inspirational speech for the kids.

Not being one who stands idly by when rank malfeasance is rife around me, I went home after the event and wrote to the principal protesting the invitation of the politician. I noted that it would have been far more appropriate and useful for the students had she invited a local artist, engineer, merchant or scientist to make the address.

I wrote, "What is the reason you selected a politician to stand before your students? Do you believe politicians these days are the best role model for encouraging young people to succeed in life? Please reconsider this belief—politicians are leeches, mostly, and our kids need productive role models." Or something along these lines.

Needless to say, my letter was ignored, although at least my child didn't seem to have suffered any adverse repercussions.

I was reminded of this episode when I was watching my favorite television program the other night, Law & Order. This show always begins with the discovery or commission of a crime, followed by the detectives figuring out who is the most likely suspect and then the assistant DA and staff going about mounting the prosecution. In this episode someone had shot up City Council in New York City, killing and injuring two politicians. When the detectives come to the scene of the crime, they see one member of the council dead and ask whether the injured victim, by now taken off to the hospital, is also a member of the council. In response, the investigating officer says, "No, thank God, it was some civilian," or words to that effect.

OK, perhaps this isn't much to get bent out of shape about but my tentacles are very, very sensitive and I noticed how the writers snuck in this odd tip of the hat to politicians, suggesting that it is much worse to have injured such an individual than a "mere" civilian.

There is an interesting, even challenging issue afoot here, actually. In a society in which public officials are involved in the honorable task of securing the rights of citizens, they are a bit like good soldiers, standing guard against criminals and others who would undermine civil society. That is perhaps one reason why even after the sorry record of governments throughout history, there is still some kind of honor attached to the term "statesman."

The idea is that some folks in law enforcement and administration may actually be performing a noble task, standing up to defend the citizenry against barbarians, those who would wreak havoc against peace and justice. That is one reason many people have a certain degree of native respect for police officers and soldiers, especially in a relatively free society, or for the sheriff in the so-called Wild West. That is why in the famous movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart's character, the man who brings law and order to a Western town, is taken to be a hero, along with the character played by John Wayne, a decent but very tough ruffian who fights the evil bloke, a robber and murderer, played by Lee Marvin.

In the idealized American context, champions of law and order are seen as good guys, unlike, say, in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union—and, if one is realistic about it, in much of contemporary America.

Sadly, in the country that America is today—or may in fact have always been when we take a closer look—it is entirely gratuitous to cast politicians and bureaucrats as heroes. Members of a city council, especially in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are as a rule undeserving of special respect. They do not hold honorable professions. They are, essentially, power brokers and wielders, not professionals standing up for peace and justice. Therefore their deaths or injuries at the hands of criminals certainly don't deserve special lament, as against the deaths or injuries of ordinary citizens.

The writers of this Law & Order episode ought to get real—people in politics today don't merit special consideration, even in fiction, let alone in real life.
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Tibor Machan, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. You may send him MAIL and view his Mises.org  Daily Articles Archive.