The anti-free-enterprise contingent at Time Magazine must have winced
at giving their “Person of the Year” award to Steve Bezos, founder of
Amazon.com. But even the folks at Time must submit to market pressure,
and giving the award to anyone connected with politics would seem wildly
implausible. Above all, at the end of the century and with the explosive
growth of on-line commerce, politics is being discredited as a positive
I can think of no greater trend of our time. It begins to rectify a
big problem for American society that arose during and after the New
Deal, when the private sector experienced something of a brain drain to
the government. The “best and the brightest” were drawn to Washington to
try their hand at constructing the planned society. Working for the
state became the epitome of success. American school kids were taught
that the highest aspiration was to become president.
Look at the change in today’s ethos. Today, it is not politicians and
bureaucrats whom people admire, but innovators and creators in the new
economy, outstanding intellectuals and researchers, actors and
entertainers, and humanitarians and benefactors. These are the people
who inspire respect and admiration, whereas politicians are, at best,
distrusted, and the permanent bureaucrat class is loathed.
In the 1940s, the president’s picture hung in the family room; today,
the face of a president is more likely to be seen on a Halloween mask.
In the 1950s, there was shock when Bob Hope made gentle fun of
Eisenhower’s golf game; today, comedians joke at the expense of Clinton,
with humor so rank as to be unsuitable for children under 18. In the
1960s, a Christmas card from the White House was a treasure; today it is
trash. In the 1970s, Mt. Rushmore was a patriotic monument; now it’s a
temple to state worship.
What accounts for the change? It’s a logical consequence of the
decline in statist ideology, which rested on the idea that government is
entitled to hold the preeminent position in society, economy, and
culture. There was to be no higher authority because only government
could correct for the failings of the free market and the free society.
But these days, that is an untenable position; in virtually every
area of life, it is obvious that government management of anything is
harmful. Government is seen as a grasping sector seeking power and
conferring privilege. News of corruption and fraud at the highest levels
is so commonplace it barely makes the headlines in the Washington Post.
Another cabinet minister accused of bribe taking and conflict of
interest? Tell me something I don’t know.
All of this is taking a toll on the government’s ability to recruit
to its ranks, as the military well knows. There is also the reality that
the financial benefits associated with public-sector employment are no
longer there, at least as compared with the best private-sector
companies. But more importantly, public-sector employees are no longer
held in high esteem, at least as compared with other lines of work.
Bureaucrats themselves sense it. They receive no warm welcomes at
family reunions and neighborhood parties. The citizenry treats them not
as saviors but as enemies. This takes a psychological toll on those left
in the “civil service” and discourages new entrants into the
bureaucratic class. As for politicians, the rhetoric of this campaign
season tells you a lot; they are all struggling to come across as
outsiders, not professionals. Only then do they stand a chance of
gaining voter confidence.
This trend has become so conspicuous that a certain branch of the
intellectual class senses the need to defend government and “public
service” (a terrible term for parasitism). Two of the most recent are
Gary Wills’ “A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of
Government” and Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation.” Both are hymns
to government that express nostalgia for the old days when government’s
ability and moral authority were unquestioned. Both underscore the
extraordinary change we’ve seen.
A good question is: When did this trend begin and what brought it
about? Suzanne Garment, writing in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 20,
1999), has a theory: “A central harm done to American government by the
poisonous political atmosphere after Watergate was to spread the notion
that public service was a minefield, traversed only at the risk of
reputational life and limb. A widespread, self-protective cynicism
resulted. For many men and women today, government has ceased to be a
natural stop on a professional life’s journey.”
Murray Rothbard, with great prescience, predicted this in 1973. In
“For a New Liberty,” he wrote: “What Watergate has meant is a total
desanctifying of the President and of such previously sacrosanct federal
institutions as the CIA and the FBI. The invasions of property, the
police state methods, the deception of the public, the corruption, the
manifold and systemic commissions of crime by a once virtually
all-powerful President led to a once unthinkable impeachment of a
President and of a widespread and well-justified lack of trust in all
politicians and government officials.”
After 1973, there was hyperinflation and the tax revolt, events which
only exacerbated the phenomenon that Rothbard identified. Both led to
the election of Ronald Reagan, a man widely seen as a sworn enemy of
government. But the long-run effect of the Reagan presidency was just
the opposite. It wasn’t only that his winning smile and ebullient
personality had the psychological effect of restoring faith in
government; it was also the perception that he was fighting a war
against an enemy even worse than our own leviathan, namely the Soviet
With the end of the Cold War, the burden of proof fell back on
Washington, D.C., to demonstrate its usefulness to the rest of us.
Perhaps no one was up to the task, but Clinton has been spectacularly
unsuccessful in rescuing government from its bad reputation. Indeed, he
is living proof that the best way to get to the top in politics is to be
as ruthless, selfish and duplicitous as is humanly possible. Why would
anyone want to enter a profession in which the likes of Clinton can
climb to the top?
Clinton has done nothing for the free market while in office.
However, by discrediting the very idea of public-sector service, and
politics in general, he has done society one great favor. He has stopped
the brain drain from the private sector. The best and brightest no
longer inhabit the public sector. Increasingly, they — like Steve Bezos
and the rest of the sharpies at
Amazon.com — are working for us instead.