In the vernacular of a television series that was popular a couple of decades ago: The story you are about to hear is true. The names were changed to protect the innocent. As many of you know, the Reason Foundation and Reason magazine are based in Los Angeles. I operate a one-person office in Washington, and since Reason is situated some 2,500 miles away from my headquarters, part of my job is to "show the flag." Earlier this year I attended one of those day-long conferences that somebody in Washington seems to sponsor nearly every day. They let me meet people and provide story ideas that I might not come up with sitting in my office. Let me share an experience from this event which may show why Washington appears to be so unfathomable to outsiders.
It was early January, Congress had been in session for less than a week, and the city was a-twitter with spending-cut fever. As I was making my way to the registration table, a very animated acquaintance approached me. He works for an advocacy group that has spent years railing against a particular federal agency. This agency is relatively popular and it doesn't consume a lot of taxpayer money, but it protects neither life, nor liberty, nor property and ought to lose its taxpayer subsidies. (For the sake of simplicity, I'll call the agency the Ministry of Culture and leave the Washington advocacy group anonymous; I hope my larger point is more important than merely naming names.) My acquaintance approached me and said, "Listen, there's a chance we can privatize the Ministry of Culture. I'm supposed to brief Senator [Jones] in two days and make recommendations. The Reason Foundation pushes privatization, right? If you can fax me a one-page list of recommendations and talking points, I'll be sure the Senator gets it."
My acquaintance was indeed correct. The Reason Foundation both studies and promotes privatization. As you might imagine, I was pretty charged up about the prospect of the Reason Foundation having a direct link to the committee chairman who was thinking about privatizing a federal agency. When I returned to my office at the end of the day, I called the office in Los Angeles and left what were probably rather breathless messages, asking for help from Bill Eggers, who heads our Privatization Center, and Reason's president, Bob Poole.
The next day, I found that Bill had left a message on my voice mail which said, in effect, Snap out of it! You don't formulate public policy with a cook book--pull down a volume from your reference shelf, look up a recipe, and plug in the ingredients. Every agency is different; every privatization is unique.
It turns out that the foundation did investigate privatizing the Ministry of Culture several years ago, and Bill sent me some relevant information. But--as Bill pointed out--the Washington advocacy group that contacted me has been obsessed with the mission and funding of the Ministry of Culture for the past five years. And--Bill asked--they've never thought about how to get rid of it? Would they abolish it, convert it into a nonprofit organization, or merely defund it and hope it survives in the marketplace? Bill couldn't believe an advocacy group with such a focused mission could be so shortsighted.
On further reflection, I believe Bill--who came to the Reason Foundation from the Heritage Foundation three years ago-- has been away from Washington too long. He looked at the situation rationally and proposed a solution that would advance a limited-government agenda. That's not the way Washington works. Consider instead two possibilities: People at this advocacy group may have been wracked with pessimism. They fervently believed that a Congress hostile to the ministry would never come to power, so they never even considered the possibility that the ministry would be defunded.
Or perhaps the group is cynical. It didn't really care whether Congress abolished the Ministry of Culture; indeed, the group may have counted on a political climate that would encourage perpetual subsidies to this agency. The Ministry of Culture thus becomes a convenient target, a source of fundraising for the advocacy group, preventing the people who work there from having to go out and get real jobs. In either case, Washington culture encourages the group not to think about how the government could be rolled back. I hope this little vignette serves as an example of the rather bizarre set of rules and protocols that permeate Washington political culture. Those of us who value the principles of free minds and free markets may be experiencing the best opportunity to relimit government this century. But I offer a warning: You won't get any help from Washington.
The protocols--or pathologies, really--I want to talk with you about today constitute what I consider Washington's Seven Deadly Sins. The seven I've identified are insularity, hubris, immaturity, partisanship, obtuseness, mendacity, and false modesty. I'll briefly touch on each one, and admittedly, they often reinforce one another. Why I consider them sins should become obvious. I call them 'deadly' for two reasons: They tend to strangle any attempts to alter the inside-the-Beltway culture; and, if you're based in Washington, and you don't indulge in at least a few of these sins, as far as official Washington is concerned, you might as well be dead.
If you're a regular Reason reader, you may recall a series of observations about Washington culture I first made in the magazine a little more than two years ago. In this column, from the February 1993 issue, I discussed Washington's perpetual adolescence. While some people have suggested that Washington is a company town in which the only industry doesn't produce anything, after a year in D.C., I instead concluded that Washington is more like a college town where no one really has to graduate.
Today, I'd like to update this assessment for you. It's two years later. We had an important election in November. Even though nobody graduated then, a lot of folks were expelled. So maybe my college-town analogy doesn't fit as well as it did two years ago. But even with the Republican takeover of Congress, official Washington continues to operate undeterred. For someone like me, who is in Washington's policy culture, but not of it, let me tell you--I seem to be a foreign correspondent in my own nation's capital.
Let me make one thing clear--I'm not asking to get out. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment. But I have a wonderful job, I work for terrific people, and Washington is truly an exciting place to be a political journalist.
But humor writer Dave Barry showed the appropriate attitude a few months ago, when in a story for The Washington Post Magazine, he said, "This City is Nothing Like the Planet Earth." Dave is fortunate enough to live in Miami, some 1,200 miles outside the Beltway. For better or worse, I've gotta ride the Metro into the District from my home in the Virginia suburbs every day.
Washington may not have always been this way. In Washington Goes to War, David Brinkley's wonderful memoir of life in D.C. in the years leading up to and including the Second World War, Brinkley points out that the Capitol building wasn't air conditioned until 1937. Before then, Congress met for about five months of the year; the rest of the time, the climate was so insufferable that members of Congress returned to their homes and occasionally spent time with their constitutents. But, as Brinkley notes, Congress has performed most of its mischief since the halls of the Capitol became tolerable to occupy year-round. With Congress, the White House, the federal agencies, and the national museums all within walking distance of each other, Washington seems a bit like a theme park to outsiders. It's a theme park that unquestionably uses the Internal Revenue Service to forcibly extract its admission fees, but you get the point: Washington is a mecca for tourists. Tens of thousands of families plan their trips to Washington much as they would a trip to Disney World or Opryland or Colonial Williamsburg. Unless you're lobbying the government, or you're a journalist, who would plan a business trip to D.C.?
As Washington's power has grown, so has the city's insularity, its obliviousness to the way people live "in the real world." Washington really is a company town; in addition to the tens of thousands of congressional staffers, federal employees, and lobbyists, the District of Columbia government employs 45,000 people. That's about the same number of local workers as in Chicago, a city that's six times larger than Washington and not exactly famous for its lean public sector.
The D.C. metropolitan area has more than 1.5 million residents, yet I dare you to name a major private employer other than The Washington Post headquarted in the region. OK, there are quite a few. But the three largest publicly held corporations in the D.C. area, as reported by the Post earlier this week, are Mobil Corp., the energy chemical giant, MCI, the telecommunications upstart, and Lockheed Martin, the mega-defense contractor. As you might note, the success of each of these companies is closely tied to government regulation (which could explain choosing the Washington area as their base of operations), and of those only MCI is headquartered in D.C.; the others are in the adjacent suburbs.