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Press Release

Lessons from Condit


Representative Gary Condit’s (D-Calif.) self-immolation scene on last Thursday’s "Prime Time Live" was instructive for those interested in understanding what people who share CSE’s vision are up against. I am not saying that Rep. Condit is guilty of any crime, nor do I suggest that all representatives conduct their personal affairs in a similar fashion. What is instructive about this whole unfortunate episode is the glimpse it offers into the calculating, risk-averse world of today’s legislators.

It was not until his hometown Modesto Bee published an editorial calling for his resignation that Rep. Condit broke his silence with the media. Similarly, it was not until Rep. Condit’s interview with Connie Chung antagonized millions of Americans – particularly women – that House Minority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) openly chastised Rep. Condit. In both instances, the congressmen waited until silence was untenable before they were willing to answer questions, or offer a much-overdue rebuke.

The actions of both Reps. Condit and Gephardt reveal the pursuit of self-interest that underlies the decisions of today’s political class. Most politicians strive to avoid all actions that may prematurely end their careers or diminish their influence. Instead, careerist politicians base decisions about public relations and legislation on cautious political calculations, not only in the case of misdeeds, but also on matters of principle where the right policy choice is clear. Put in simple terms, legislators act and vote in ways to reduce the chance that they will lose their next election or diminish their own power and authority.

Of course, the inclination to act in a self-serving fashion is not limited to elected officials; regulators and other executive branch administrators also demonstrate this tendency. As ample economic and political literature demonstrates, the decisions of government employees are no different than those of the average person: Both are characterized by self-interest and driven by personal ambition. Of course, this does not mean that the average politician is any worse than the rest of us; it simply acknowledges that government officials are people too, with the same desire to fulfill their own goals and vision of success.

But it is important to recognize that the institutions of government are very different from those of the market. Because "success" at governing is so difficult to define, or measure, public sector accountability is much more difficult to ascertain. Mistakes made by public officials do not have the same swift and unambiguous consequences as those made by individuals in a marketplace, where competition and choice put consumers in the driver’s seat. As a result, political decisions often may not promote the general welfare as effectively as the consumer-driven outcomes of the market.

This realization strikes a blow to those who believe government acts to promote the "public interest." If those responsible for government decisions behave just like anyone else, without the same degree of accountability, it is hard to justify granting expansive new authority to the government. But that is precisely why the founders structured the Constitution in the way that they did. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
The Founding Fathers did not expect government officials to act in the "public interest," and that is why they placed institutional safeguards to limit the size and scope of the federal government. Unfortunately, over the course of the United States’ history, those safeguards have steadily eroded. Today, the government accounts for over one-fifth of the economy and no sphere of life is outside of its jurisdiction. Self-interested government officials have managed to continually expand their influence and have convinced more than enough people that their decisions are somehow different from all others because they are based on the "public interest."

With the original constitutional checks on government power all but completely eliminated, it is up to the people to stop, or reverse, trends towards bigger government. Conservatives cannot expect legislators interested in protecting their own skin to take risks and act heroically. Nor should they expect policy papers and editorials – no matter how well written – to seriously affect political calculations if not accompanied by grassroots activism. The fact of the matter is that public officials will not support free market positions on Social Security, Medicare, and overall government spending unless their constituents let it be known that those positions are politically advantageous.

This is a daunting, but not insurmountable task. The more individuals who take the time to write letters, attend events, and engage their elected officials in person, the better chance our side has to fundamentally change policy. And the more pressure policymakers feel for free market solutions, the more often they will be on our side.

Based on the public reaction to his television interviews, Rep. Condit has not proved to be particularly adept at maximizing his personal utility in this matter. But his performance is less important than his intent, which, few would argue, was to help himself politically. The tragedy of a missing woman should not be forgotten, but neither should this important lesson about the motivation of political actors.