Selected Skirmishes: How May I Serve You?

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"The hunger that gnawed at [Lyndon Johnson] most deeply was a hunger not for riches but for power in its most naked form; to bend others to his will. At every stage of his life, the acknowledgement by others—the deferential, face-to-face, subservient acknowledgement—that he possessed it."

So details Pulitzer Prize winner Robert A. Caro in Means of Ascent, the second of his thus far masterful four-volume biography of the 36th president of the United States. Caro offers the student of American government a cornucopia of rich political science treats, but allow me to select just one chewy morsel suggested by his rendition of the Texas U.S. Senate race of 1948. Lyndon Baines Johnson went one-on-one with the legendary Coke Stevenson, two-time speaker of the Texas House, two-time governor of Texas, and victorious each of the 12 times he had run for office. Known as "Mr. Texas," Coke Stevenson was hugely popular. In both runs for governor, he had set records for the highest plurality in a contested Texas statewide primary, finishing with an astounding 85 percent against eight challengers in his reelection bid; it was the only time any Texan had won all 254 counties in the sprawling state.

Yet, remarkably, Coke was a lousy politician. Caro quotes an Austin legislator: "I think Coke really hated politics. Truly hated it—the deals, the maneuverings. It just completely went against the grain of the man." Rising every day at 4 A.M. to read the Great Works, Stevenson cherished the Texas and American constitutions as sacred documents, protectors of the people against the encroachments of government. And "when liberals later criticized him for having had 'no program,' Stevenson would reply, 'Well, that's not exactly right. It was economy.'"

No one ever accused Lyndon Johnson of lacking a program. Monty Hall never had so many deals. Building a coalition by procuring for special interests access to government power was the foundation of Johnsonian democracy. There was a genius to this: Lyndon Johnson saw the bounty that the explosive growth of government in the New Deal and W.W. II days could bring an alert tradesman.

Not only was LBJ conscientiously greasing the bureaucratic skids for those I-didn't-get-my-veteran's-pension pleas that pour into congressional offices each and every mail day, he could often see the political objectives of important interests before the interests could see them for themselves. If rural electrification subsidies would bring good times to Texas Hill Country folk and massive federal contracts to well-wired Houston contractors, then Lyndon would not just broker the deal—he'd create it, grab the federal funds, and tirelessly deliver the government largesse to every last beneficiary. And then he would own their political souls.

Now, an interesting question: Why should Coke Stevenson—unresponsive to the demands of the political world, unwilling to deal, contemptuous of the consumers of democracy—be thought of as morally right? Was the indefatigable Lyndon not the true entrepreneur, seeking out suppliers and demanders with an energy to rival the great capitalists?

A funny thing, this political entrepreneurship. It almost looks like real trade; like value for value. But those in the know, know the difference. Like Lyndon Johnson. He felt it deeply, when, soon after he had procured a valuable radio station license via exercise of his duties as a young congressman, he had the opportunity to make some private market transactions selling advertising time.

It put him "in a position antithetical to the one he wanted to be in," details Caro. "In asking a businessman to purchase time on his station, he was not conferring a favor—a transaction which would result in power for him—but receiving one.…If he was a very well paid salesman, nonetheless selling, not buying, was what he was doing—with all that that implied in personal relationships."

The trick, it turns out, is that the state's monopoly on coercion really does change things. In the private sphere, deals need touch all the bases; everyone signs on. Even Henry Ford has to entice that poor little sap to buy his car, not the Chevy. The freedom to truck and barter produces megamillionaires, but the constraints of voluntary exchange reduce even these to mere salesmen dependent upon the good will of others. And that can be a lot to stomach.

The most astute political capitalist spots a loophole. Lyndon Johnson built his client base not by asking men to voluntarily buy but by wiggling his way into some special position of authority where men would fight to beg him for a favor. Even more special to LBJ was that he was not limited to bestowing gifts; he just might inflict a nasty punishment. Hence, his fee was collected in both gratuities and protection money, and it flowed freely (in the millions of dollars from Brown & Root alone!).

It may not be literally true that Lyndon disdained riches; by the time of his ascension to the White House he had feathered a $20-million nest egg through a career devoted wholly to what civics textbooks call public service. But in drubbing Coke Stevenson by 87 "votes," a plurality facilitated by the creation of some 35,000 extra-democratic tallies, LBJ proved overwhelmingly popular amongst the deceased of southern Texas. Landslide Lyndon gained access to a vast inventory of exclusive privileges for which grown men would grovel.

Now that's not just business. That's power.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.

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