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.
The one-dimensional nature of Washington culture lends to the city's insularity and, I believe, has a particularly malign impact on the thousands of young adults who come here directly from college to work as reporters, Capitol Hill staffers, bureaucrats, or for lobbying or advocacy groups. If you think I exaggerate, consider this: When I worked for Reason in Los Angeles, I joined a Methodist Church in Santa Monica and became active in a ministry for single adults. The group featured a fascinating assortment of folks--software designers, bankers, engineers, grad students, actors and script writers (it is, after all, L.A.), a social worker, a college math teacher, a high-school guidance counselor, and a woman who worked for a home-security firm.
Contrast this with D.C. When I moved there, I briefly attended a Methodist Church in the District a few blocks from the campus of American University. Every single person my age I met there was either a graduate student or a Capitol Hill staffer. That's how the policy community in D.C. operates. Some of you may have attended forums at the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation when you've visited Washington. Chances are, the only people you will meet there (except for the occasional out-of-town donor) will be journalists, academics, Hill staffers, bureaucrats, or people who work for advocacy groups. If you meet somebody who works for a private corporation, that person's probably a lobbyist. AND THESE ARE THE ONLY PEOPLE YOU EVER ROUTINELY MEET IN WASHINGTON! You work with them, have a beer after work with them, date them, go to parties with them. They're everywhere.
As a result, the city sucks in a lot of bright, young people, but exposes them to an extremely limited range of experiences. I don't intend to dump on lobbyists, because entrepreneurs certainly have the right to encourage government officials to leave them alone. But when the only people who work for private companies you routinely meet--with exception of bartenders, haircutters, and retail clerks--are lobbyists, you get an implied message that the primary purpose of business is to extract favors from the government.
Washington's insularity--which also affects people who are Reasons's fellow travelers--might have an impact on how far any Republican revolution may go. In the January 23 National Review, Andy Ferguson, a former speechwriter for George Bush and another of my Washington acquaintances, casts doubts on the Republican call to "devolve" functions of the federal government. As he points out, if policy making moves away from D.C., what will the policy wonks do? "If, for example," Ferguson writes, "welfare were 'returned to the states,' as some propose, the great welfare debates would perforce take place in the state capitals. I know several welfare experts in Washington, good federalists all. Not one of them would be caught dead in Bismarck or Springfield, Illinois. I'll wager that they thus become a subtle lobby for keeping welfare a federal responsibility, always (of course!) for the soundest reasons of policy." Interestingly, the latest issue of the Heritage Foundation's quarterly publication Policy Review features an article by Heritage welfare expert Robert Rector, arguing why it would be a disaster to give state bureaucracies control of welfare programs. As Andy Ferguson says, "A diaspora of Washington wonks is unthinkable, not when we can spend our days with the brethren in seminars and conferences at the Willard [Hotel] or AEI."
The second Washington sin is immaturity--an attribute I dealt with at some length in my Reason column. To this day, some two years after that column ran, people in D.C.'s free-market community view me with some suspicion. Go figure. Here's another example from my own experience. I worked briefly in Washington as an intern for the National Journalism Center in the summer of 1989. NJC is an organization that attempts to train young journalists to become solid reporters rather than op-ed pontificators. NJC provides housing for its interns in a group house on Capitol Hill; one of the older alumni served as the "house father," as an unofficial chaperone who lived with us interns, most of whom were still in college. I was 31 years old, and one other intern was my age, so the three of us tended to hang together while our younger comrades raided the local taverns for free food and cheap beers most nights. As you may remember from my column, I noted that in Washington, you never really have to pay for food. There's always a reception or happy hour somewhere, but how many soggy egg rolls or chicken drummettes you can consume without doing permanent damage to your digestive system is anybody's guess. Anyway, one night when we were playing cards, our chaperone sort of shrugged at me and said, It's amazing how many of these kids will never leave Washington. They'll get a job in some congressional office or as a reporter on some small-time newspaper, making $12,000 bucks a year, and they'll be happy. They'll live in a group house like this, and as long as they have enough money for beer and Metro fare, they'll never want to leave.
Another pathology Washington encourages is its legendary hubris--the belief that people from the Imperial City know best. I got a glimpse of this first-hand late in 1990, when I was still working in the L.A. offices and attended a Federalist Society conference in New Orleans. The conservative legal group's theme was "establishing property rights and the rule of law in former communist countries." Legal scholars and jurists from the United States were paired up with political activists from the former Soviet bloc; it was an exhilaring weekend.
The opening speaker was Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. After giving his standard off-the-shelf speech about the importance of the rule of law and how these courageous individuals from Eastern Europe could learn from the American example, Thornburgh left the conference, returned to Washington, and the proceedings continued.
The first panel was supposed to discuss how property rights can be established in societies in which all property was communally owned. One of the panelists was University of Chicago Law Professor Richard Epstein, the brilliant law and economics scholar, author of the book Takings, and subject of an interview in our April issue.
Epstein opened up by saying (I'm paraphrasing here ), I was going to discuss how to convert the ruble into hard currency, but.... This performance by Mr. Thornburgh is a prime example of what's wrong with Washington. These guys come down here, give a speech, then leave without ever hearing anything that takes place in these meetings. And besides that, his speech was a classic example of the type of dishonest, disingenuous boilerplate that substitutes for thinking that takes place in that city. While General Thornburgh pays homage to property rights and the rule of law, his administration has declared war against both concepts. Epstein then spent the rest of his 10 minutes outlining how the Bush administration was--unconstitutionally, in his view-- prosecuting insider-trading violations, using the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute to illegally confiscate the property of high-flying Wall Street traders merely because they made lots of money in mysterious ways, and trampling the rights of property owners through the Justice Department's prosecutions of environmental crimes.
Epstein's performance caused jaws to drop. After the panel, I had to introduce myself and cheer him on. He told me, I really had figured out how to convert the ruble--he showed me his notes--but I can't stand these guys who think they know everything and will listen to nobody.
You hear about Washington's hubris on talk shows, or when Republicans gripe about the way Democrats ran Congress. But this imperial attitude occasionally affects organizations on our side of policy issues--a reason, perhaps, why our Privatization Center schedules its annual conference for state and local officials outside Washington, where people are protected from Beltway Fever.
I attended another day-long Washington policy event in early January that was called by Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith and Cleveland Mayor Mike White. They wanted to get a group of their colleagues together who are known as policy innovators. With the help of market-oriented organizations, the mayors hoped to craft a unified message for Capitol Hill: What can the new Republican leaders do (or, even better, not do) to help cities? Along with Mayor Goldsmith were Republicans Bret Schundler of Jersey City, Steve Bartlett of Dallas, Richard Vinroot of Charlotte, Tom Fetzer of Raleigh, and Democrat John Norquist of Milwaukee. None of the mayors had any patience for regulations, even those they could impose at the local level. Mayor Norquist, the Democrat, was the most radical. He said he would offer the feds a deal: Stop sending federal tax dollars and federal regulations to Milwaukee, and the city would flourish on its own.
There were representatives from all of the Washington-based free-market organizations, along with persons from the Manhattan Institute, based in New York, and the Hudson Institute, headquartered right here. Although I made no formal presentation, I attended both as a reporter and as an unofficial representative of the Reason Foundation.
What struck me was that the representatives from the Washington-based organizations, for the most part, gave standard boilerplate talks about the cost of regulations and how markets are superior to mandates. The presentations were laden with abstractions not at all relvant to the mayor's purposes. I even succumbed at one point, losing a semantic struggle with Mayor Norquist over the definition of unfunded mandates.
By contrast, the representatives from Manhattan and Hudson offered meaty presentations and substantive suggestions. During one of the Washington-centered presentations, Norquist threw up his hands in exasperation, and said, I know this stuff already! What useful information can you offer us that we can take to Congress?
After the session, as I got my coat and prepared to leave, I overheard some of the other Washington folks muttering under their breaths, "What got into Norquist?" They acted as if they had no idea why the mayor was so upset.
A fourth sin is the value official Washington places on partisan behavior over adherence to principle. Truly nonpartisan policy groups are almost nonexistent on the Washington landscape. Of the prominent Beltway organizations, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are considered to be Republican front groups, just as the Urban Institute and Brookings do most of their work for the Democrats. AEI and Brookings have become more bipartisan (which isn't really the same as nonpartisan), but AEI is still viewed as the big-business think tank; when you think of Brookings, it's the Carter administration. How about Cato? Some folks still perceive Cato as a Libertarian Party front group, but it's now been labeled by The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio as "the hot Republican think tank."
The Beltway's fixation with partisanship makes it difficult for people there to figure out an organization like the Reason Foundation, or a publication like Reason. Bob Poole and Bill Eggers have been recommending options for federal privatization to the Vice President's National Performance Review--the "reinventing government" people--and both houses of Congress. When I tell my conservative friends this, they can't comprehend why we would give the Clinton White House the time of day. Advancing the agenda--promoting a free society--seems less important than smashing people who have a different party affiliation.
Political pundits are certainly expected to play the partisan game. Some of you may be familiar with Michael Kinsley's career before he began hosting CNN's Crossfire and recall the glee he took in tweaking persons across the political spectrum who engaed in hypocrisy or rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Now I see Michael Kinsley on television and wonder who stole his brain. The role he plays as Democratic apologist on Crossfire also affects his written work, which has become superficial--and highly partisan.
Don't get me wrong: I have no problem with intensely partisan arguments that are based on principle. Republican unity against Bill Clinton's first budget--and the Republican proposals in the House and Senate to produce lower deficits without tax increases--offered an honest, principled contrast between the two parties. Similarly, the Republican attacks on Clinton's health-care plan, and then on the Democratic alternatives, may have saved us from the actual medical emergency Reason called ClintonCare.
But the pervasive Washington notion that everything has to have a partisan spin is disturbing. Without question, there are plenty of members of each party who are nothing more than political hacks. West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd immediately comes to mind. Seeing Byrd make recent talk-show appearances, flashing a copy of the Constitution, made me want to ask: In what article of the Constitution can we find "pork-barrel spending," senator? Indeed, Byrd's recent performances show how Washington's obsession with partisanship feeds its next two sins: obtuseness and mendacity. Discussions of crucial policy issues in Washington are rarely debated on their merits but are instead reduced to shallow considerations of which party will benefit. In this atmosphere, which favors sound bites over substance, intellectual and ideological consistency are hard to find--and certainly aren't valued.
Let me use the TRB column in the March 20 issue of The New Republic as an example. Author Robert Wright's column dissects the tort-reform and property-rights provisions in the House Republicans' Contract With America. He argues that the tort reform bill, by limiting the damages an individual could collect in liability cases, favors a larger societal interest--keeping consumer prices low--over the rights of individuals to sue for massive sums of money that go far beyond anyone's notion of restitution. The tort-reform bill, he thinks, has merit. But when he discusses the property-rights bill, which would compensate land owners when federal regulations reduce the value of their property, he says the Republicans have decided to place individual rights over the best interests of the society. Why, in his view, do Republicans prefer the larger society in the case of tort reform and individuals when property rights are concerned? Here we go: "In tort reform," he says. "the individuals are more like the average McDonald's customer." In other words, people at the middle and bottom of the income scale. By contrast, "the individuals...in the case of 'property protection' [are] ranchers, real-estate developers, owners of vacation homes--in short, Republicans."
Not only is Wright wrong on two counts--Big Macs are mighty popular among Republicans in the Sun Belt, and I would imagine that the voters in Martha's Vineyard tend to lean Democratic--but he relegates a serious issue like the proper roles of lawsuits and government regulation to a mere partisan calculation, suggesting, in the process, that when you choose to work in certain occupations you should forfeit your constitutional rights. This is amateurish, bordering on insipid. But Wright isn't writing satire. And it consumes the lead column in The New Republic, considered one of the most intelligent political publications in the country.
Sen. Byrd wasn't the only person engaging in silly, dishonest rhetoric during the balanced-budget debate. During the debate in the House, a number of left-leaning legislators, along with sympathetic pundits, had argued that a provision requiring a 60-percent vote of both houses to pass any tax increases was "unconstitutional." I always thought that, once ratified, an amendment to the Constitution was, by definition, constitutional, but maybe I missed something in my high-school civics classes. Even richer was a speech on the floor of the Senate given by California's Barbara Boxer in mid-January, in which she said a balanced-budget amendment would somehow "limit democracy." Hello! Senator! I thought that's why we have a Constitution--to limit democracy, or at least to restrain untrammeled majority rule. Or did she miss that civics lesson?
Quite often, partisans say dumb things, like Boxer. Other times, they're mendacious. Take the case of New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is considered to be one of the few intellectuals on Capitol Hill. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Moynihan was asked on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour what caused communism to fail. "I think you have to go back to what the Austrian economists were saying about the impossibility of socialist planning," he said, "to the need for market prices to allocate resources."
By the time the debate over the balanced-budget amendment had reached the Senate this January, however, Moynihan's recollection of Austrian economics had become spotty. On the same day Boxer made her speech about civics, Moynihan announced his opposition to the amendment.
He didn't argue, as some did, that a balanced-budget requirement would prevent Congress from using deficit spending to stimulate the economy during a recession. Instead, Moynihan named the brilliant economists who worked with him in the Kennedy and Johnson administations, Walter Heller and Arthur Burns, who, through the sheer power of their intellects, he said, were able to engineer the high growth, low inflation, and "full employment" of the 1960s. A balanced-budget requirement, said Moynihan, would have prevented those brilliant men from fine-tuning the American economic machine. The senator appears to imply that Russian communists weren't smart enough to plan the Soviet economy but somehow Kennedy-era Keynsians could plan America's. The final Washington sin is what we might call false modesty, a belief or attitude that, with few exceptions, the federal government does little to alter the lives of people "out there," away from the Willard Hotel conferences and the lavish Georgetown dinner parties. Washington political culture treats three subjects seriously: taxes and spending, political "horse race" stories, and official corruption. The other stuff the feds do is unimportant.
Without question, some of the Washington-based stories that get a lot of air play, particularly of the horse-race variety, do not matter: boxers vs. briefs; will Leon Panetta replace Al Gore on the 1996 Democratic ticket or will Panetta get fired? How much money will Newt Gingrich get for his book? These stories deserve a resounding, "So What," but they're the ones that seem to soak up plenty of newspaper column-inches.
I'm concerned about Washington's indifference to overzealous regulation, the massive expansion of government debt, and the routine intrusions on voluntary behavior the federal government engages in all the time. The Beltway responses to these compelling stories appears to be a systemic shrug. My complaint is with Baltimore Sun columnist Jack Germond, a political reporter I greatly admire, who has said on The McLaughlin Group and elsewhere that a balanced-budget requirement in the Constitution would make no difference in anyone's life. The balanced-budget that passed the House earlier this year was certainly flawed. I would prefer to see an amendment ratified that limits as a percentage of national income the amount of money the federal government can spend. But unless federal officials stop spending profligately and accumulating debt, long before my working years end, either the Treasury will be bankrupt or the currency worthless.
My complaint is also with Herbert Stein, who was the chairman of Richard Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers, and who wrote in The Washington Post two weeks ago: "I doubt that an objective observer, if you can imagine such a thing, looking around the world would think that excessive size of government is one of America's big problems." He continues. "Even if you think that the federal government ought to be smaller, there is no reason to think that making it smaller would solve any serious problem in this country." Reading Mr. Stein may help explain why Richard Nixon was the worst president of the 20th century, but it's not reassuring for those of us interested in restoring limited government.
And my complaint is with Republicans and Democrats who constantly tinker with the federal tax code. Two years ago, Congress increased marginal income-tax rates for wealthy Americans and subjected a larger proportion of Social Security benefits to taxation. Earlier this month the House has voted to repeal some of those tax increases, grant $500 tax credits to families with children, and let persons take money out of Individual Retirement Accounts to buy homes and pay some medical expenses.
Don't get me wrong: I believe people should keep what they earn. Your income belongs to you, not the government. But as Milton Friedman will point out in an interview in the June issue of Reason, this constant churning in the tax code mainly enriches accountants, tax lawyers, and lobbyists, and discourages investors and entrepreneurs from making long-term plans with their money. And by expending political capital on piddling tax revisions this year, Republicans may jeopardize their opportunity to indeed overhaul or replace the Internal Revenue Code next year.
I really don't know how to exorcise these Washington demons. Many libertarians and conservatives have enthusiastically embraced term limits as a procedural method of reducing government. By requiring regular "new blood" in Congress, supporters say term limits will prevent legislative fiefdoms from forming.
I'm neither an advocate nor an opponent of term limits: I'm a federalist. If citizens, through the initiative process or their legislatures, wish to limit the length of time elected officials can serve in a given office, go for it. But I've yet to hear a convincing, principled argument that a certain limit on a office-holder's tenure--whether it's six, eight, or twelve years- would magically transform legislators into libertarians. After all, I have a tough time believing that, even with term limits, you'll get libertarian-leaning legislators elected in Macomb County, Michigan, home of the legendary Reagan Democrats, in rural Arkansas, or in the Westside of Los Angeles, where Reason's editors live. Reason's congressman, at it were, is Henry Waxman, who may be the EPA and FDA's best friend on Capitol Hill. As Virginia Postrel says, having Henry Waxman as your congressman is arguably an example of taxation without representation. Term limits would force particularly obnoxious statists like Waxman to retire. But they are no substitute for winning the hearts and minds of people across the country. The newest members of Congress have tended to be more intensely ideological--both pro- and anti-government--than more senior representatives. Some of you may have kept up with the coverage of the 73 feisty freshman House Republicans. Fewer journalists, however, have noted that the Democrats elected from the majority black and majority Hispanic districts that resulted from the 1990 redistricting have been perhaps more vocal advocates of income redistribution and stifling regulations than the most ossified Democratic congressional barons. It's something to consider.
So what can libertarians do? I hope I've made it pretty clear that you shouldn't look for help from Washington. Outside the Beltway, however, things are looking up. The overwhelming, nearly veto-proof margins with which the regulatory reforms in the Contract With America passed the House of Representatives confirms something Reason readers have known for some time: Everyday Americans are fed up with the petty intrusions government regulators routinely impose on us. From complying with wetlands laws to filing your income taxes to providing "reasonable accomodation" for persons under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the message is clear: We want our lives back.
Homeowners, taxpayers, and entrepreneurs--in other words, most Americans--may be sympathetic to our message. Appealing to that audience, however, may require libertarians to restrain a tendency that often afflicts all of us, including me. We are often accused of being utopians. We always deny it. But our actions speak louder than our protests, because libertarians tend to make perfection the enemy of "good enough." Consider an issue that's important to many of us: the drug war. We often advocate absolute drug legalization--an end state. There are, however, a lot of people who will admit that prohibition has been excessive but can't stomach immediate, thoroughgoing legalization.
A real-world example of such a potential fellow-traveler is Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde, who's now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Henry Hyde takes a back seat to no one in his advocacy of tough criminal penalties for drug use and drug dealing. But he has become a principled critic of asset forfeiture--the law-enforcement practice of seizing the property of persons who are merely suspected of dealing or using drugs. Congressman Hyde's outrage at the erosion of property rights and due process caused by civil forfeiture makes him an unlikely, but valuable, ally on this issue. Indeed, the Cato Institute wisely decided to publish a book Hyde wrote on civil forfeiture. It would have been easy for Cato take a purely principled position and refuse to build bridges with Mr. Hyde because he doesn't advocate overturning all the drug laws tomorrow. By instead welcoming Henry Hyde into the fold, he may give us a more sympathetic listening on other issues. And, as one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill, having Hyde's support can advance our agenda.
Instead of reflexively burning bridges when people refuse to agree with us completely, let me suggest a counter-strategy, which is summed up by a phrase I've heard some friends in the free-market community use: "Rome was not burned in a day." It's taken a half-century to build up the current regulatory state. It will take more than one election or one session of Congress to replace it--if that's what the American people want. It's our job to convince individuals, one a time, that their lives will be better if we cut taxes, eliminate government programs, reduce regulations, and--don't forget--expect them to take more control over their own lives.
More than the principles (or lack of them) held by the new congressional leaders, I'm encouraged with the development of what I refer to as "cyberdemocracy" in the April issue of Reason--the use of talk shows, e-mail, and broadcast faxes to bypass traditional information outlets. To date, information-age politics has been dominated by people who want to tear down the regulatory state, and who show more allegiance to ideas than party labels. Perhaps cyberdemocracy can cause the Beltway Empire to crash under its own weight. Until that happens, keep your powder dry.