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Three Statists

Mises Daily: Wednesday, August 11, 1999 by

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No doubt the typical proponent of freedom and free enterprise, being of good manners and peaceful disposition, would sooner put his head in a bucket of rats than read All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos, Locked in the Cabinet by Robert Reich and Behind the Oval Office by Dick Morris. These books are chronicles by three government men of their years with the Clinton presidency, American democracy’s celebration of the abject. Why would a friend of liberty want to get more of this sorry episode by reading these books?

One good reason: Know Your Enemy.

Stephanopoulos, Reich, and Morris are statists. But each is a statist of a different type. Their chronicles offer an opportunity to plumb three classic varieties of the statist mind.

George Stephanopoulos was a top aide to Bill Clinton between 1992 and 1996. The Stephanopoulos-type statist has a history and a tradition that is as old as the state itself. In today’s America he has the esteemed title of senior advisor to the president. He is a celebrity, envied and fawned over by the political class. A political operative and round-the-clock propagandist, this brand of statist makes his living by doing what it takes to enrich the power of his monarch, his dictator or his president. He is an elite stooge.

Stephanopoulos tells us in All Too Human that "the pistons of [his] character" are "restrained idealism and raw ambition." What he has raw ambition for is government power. He loves being near it, being part of it and wielding it, for its own sake and for the celebrity that it brings. He rationalizes his ambition for power with this restrained idealism: "Because I believe in original sin, because I know that I’m capable of craving a cold beer in a village of starving kids, because I understand that selfishness vies for space in our hearts with compassion, I believe we need government -- a government that forces us to care for the common good even when we don’t feel like it, a government that helps channel our better instincts and check our bad ones."

People who have a lust for the power to impose their will on others are rare in society. Invariably, they wind up in prison or in government. Stephanopoulos chose the government route. Without a doubt, Stephanopoulos has a desire to serve the common good, and he believes in "the power of politics to help people." But All Too Human reveals that Stephanopoulos hooked up with government not from a desire to help people but from a desire for power, the kind of power that only politics and government can offer. It is egoism, not altruism, that drives the political stooge.

Power corrupts, and the people most corrupted by power are the people who want it most. As the stooge ascends in the ranks and gets closer to power, his character changes. He grows even more infatuated with himself. The stooge who makes it to the ranks of the ruling elite takes on a different character altogether. Assisting the head of state govern over the masses, he sees himself as inherently different from them. He sees himself as genuinely elite, and he sees the masses as instruments of his will. Exercising power in the name of the state, he sees the state as an extension of himself. He works to expand the power of the state because in doing so he expands his own power and affirms his vision of himself, and he is burdened by no scruples in attacking any opposition that threatens his power.

All Too Human is the story Stephanopoulos tells about an elite stooge corrupted by power. It is a story not about Bill Clinton, but about himself.

Robert B. Reich, the Secretary of Labor during Clinton’s first term, is a familiar type of statist. He is the social engineer, ever ready with government intrusions to heal our hurting nation. And, Reich tells us in Locked in the Cabinet, our nation is hurting bad. "We are fast becoming two cultures--one of affluence and contentment, the other of insecurity and cynicism." "Most Americans are worried about their jobs, their wages, their futures, their kids’ futures--worried that the American Dream of upward mobility may be just a dream." "The middle class has become an anxious class." (His italics.) "Sweatshops are back in America." That’s a daunting heap of crisis and woe for even the most determined social engineer. And Reich is one determined social engineer. "There’s so goddamn much to be done," he writes. (Again, his italics; I guess statists have a thing for italics).

Academic-bureaucrat Reich is a determined social engineer because he cares about the economically anxious and overwrought--the pawns of capitalism, the proletariat and the army of the unemployed. We know he cares about these people because he tells us so on every other page of his book. Sometimes he tells us several times on the same page. And if one cares--truly cares--there is no option but to be a statist. "To give up on government is to cede it to those who are in it for the wrong reasons, or who care nothing for the underdogs in society," he writes. ‘I care; therefore, I am a statist’ is the self-righteous logic of the social engineer.

The social engineer also has the arrogance of an Ivy League academic. This is not surprising, since so many social engineers are Ivy League academics. Ivy League academic arrogance is not "I’m-a professor-at-Harvard" arrogance; it’s "Society-would-be-much-better-off- if-the-government-policies-that-I-have-proposed-and-discussed-at-length-in-my-many-books- and-articles-were-put-in-place-immediately" arrogance.

Don’t be fooled by the April 15, 1993 entry in Reich’s chronicle, in which he reminisces about warning his Harvard students that a social engineer who has the arrogance to believe he knows what is best for society is dangerous. Reich is full of the very arrogance he warns his students about. He believes "government is the engine of social progress." He believes "government’s mission is to create genuine opportunity for all" (his italics)--not the phony kind that liberty offers. He believes he knows just what is best for society and feels justified in using government coercion to engineer it.

The social engineer is by nature arrogant and self-righteous. What else but arrogance and self-righteousness would lead him to think that he is fighting the good fight by using government coercion to engineer society as he sees fit? But the social engineer is more than just arrogant and self-righteous. He is also a con artist.

It is tempting to compare the social engineer to the snake oil salesman, but the snake oil salesman would take offense at that. Rightly so. The social engineer is more depraved. The snake oil salesman serves up phony medicine for real ailments. The social engineer serves up phony medicine for phony ailments. His patient is the body politic. He gets the body politic to take the phony medicine by tormenting the body politic into thinking it’s sick. Where the body politic notices a blemish, a stretch mark or an ingrown hair; the social engineer sees illness, sickness and disease--which he calls Crisis, Social Injustice and National Tragedy. He berates the body politic with warnings that it’s riddled with Crisis, Social Injustice and National Tragedy; and when the worn down body politic finally yields, the social engineer crams his medicine down its throat. His medicine is always intrusive, and very expensive.

Dick Morris is our final exhibit in this reading tour of statists. Morris’s book, Behind the Oval Office, is by far the best of the three books reviewed here. It is just as self-serving as the other books, but there’s more to learn about politics, government and the mind of Bill Clinton in the first fifteen pages of Behind the Oval Office than in all the pages of All Too Human and Locked in the Cabinet combined.

Morris was the president’s key political consultant from December 1994 to August 1996. He was one of the first of the modern day political consultants and one of the first of the political pollsters. He has been giving politicians advice based on polling results since 1977, when he took on his first real client, a thirty-one year old attorney general from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.

The political class despises Morris. Party statists demand allegiance, but Morris has worked for both Democrats and Republicans. For that, the political class views him as a cynic, a cutthroat. Or worse. According to the March 21, 1995 entry in Reich’s Locked in the Cabinet, Stephanopoulos said of Morris: "He’s a slime bag. Utterly without principle. Devoid of integrity. The guy’s been working with Trent Lott [the Senate majority whip]. Still is. Nothing’s beneath him. He’ll do anything." (Again, the italics are the statist’s.)

There is a larger reason why the political class despises Morris. Morris advises politicians to take positions that his polls show are popular with voters. The political class denounces this as "governing by polls;" it is, in Reich’s words, "the antithesis of leadership." Governing by polls circumvents the ruling elite. It transfers power from the ruling elite to the median voter. Reich says: "There used to be a policy-making process in the White House. Now we have Morris and his polls." Nothing is more loathsome to a member of the ruling elite than the loss of power.

Morris is not a political stooge or a social engineer. He is a statist of a different sort. Morris is a political animal. He loves the game of politics. For him, politics is an end in itself.

But to play the game of politics is to play games with people’s lives. The median voter can be a tyrant, too, and the political animal urges him to be one. If power corrupts--and we know it does--the political animal is likely to be successful.

Morris tells us in Behind the Oval Office that his ego lead to his demise. He writes: "Ego is the occupational disease of politics. It infects idealism and turns it into self- righteousness. It distorts a desire to make positive change into a search for power." Morris understates the problem. People like Morris, Reich and Stephanopoulos don’t become flush with ego, self-righteous and hungry for power once they enter politics and government. They are that way before they enter politics and government. That’s why they enter politics and government.

The lesson of the elite stooge, the social engineer and the political animal is that government power does not, as Stephanopoulos would have it, "channel our better instincts and check our bad ones." Government power attracts the worst among us and brings out the worst in us. It attracts people who must impose their will on others to affirm themselves. It attracts people who believe in using force to mold society to their liking. And it attracts people who believe that politics is and ought to be the driving force of society. Once such people taste power, their desire for it grows even stronger.

Power corrupts. But it does more than that. Power attracts the corrupt, then corrupts them further.

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Don Mathews teaches economics at Coastal Georgia College.