The Great Transition

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If there is a glorious moment in American politics, it is the transition between administrations. The outgoing one is powerless, "lame duck." That’s a great image: government as a duck hobbling around without workable legs and wings. Too bad it can’t be a permanent state of affairs. It appears that the Clinton administration is going to attempt to defy the label. USA Today reports that it is planning a flurry of new regulations governing businesses, 60 from the EPA alone, to be imposed before year’s end. Clearly, the duck isn’t nearly lame enough.

On the brighter side, during the transition hundreds of thousands of politically appointed government workers are losing their job and their power to intimidate and push people around. The lifetime bureaucrats are free to openly despise their politically appointed masters. Once their palatial offices are vacated, the lifetimers can even desecrate the appointees’ pictures. Many political appointees attempt to convert their political jobs to permanent jobs. When they fail, they seek private sector employment — real jobs. Some go back to their hometowns — real life.

The incoming political appointees, thousands of them, are not yet wholly corrupted. When it is a Republican regime, there are even a few young idealists among them. Some may bring their copies of Mises’s Human Action with them to remind them of the core principles of a free society. Of course their ideals will be out the window within the first month after the inauguration, but we are talking about the transition here: if there is ever a good moment in the life of government, this is it.

With Gore still contesting the election, the General Services Administration, under the advisement of the Clinton administration, is refusing to release the $5.3 million usually given to the incoming administration, just to give the new governing crew a foretaste of the opulence in store for them over the next four years.

Most Americans knew nothing of this strange "transition" subsidy. It turns out that some of the money goes to non-profit organizations in DC, which helps explain why so many are so slavish to the party in power. The dependency relationship between government and the intellectual classes in Washington begins very early-even before the inauguration.

What’s more, this transition spending is patently immoral. Why should people be forced to fund the setting up of a government they didn’t vote for? If the money were going to Gore, Republicans would be justly upset to be taxed for such purposes. And I can understand why Clinton’s people are reluctant to fund Bush’s transition, even though refusing it is pretty darn nasty.

Lacking money or even office space, the would-be Bush administration is having to raise private money to begin its transition. That’s right: they are going to pay rent and salaries like everyone: not by clubbing people over the head but by persuading them that it is a good cause. No doubt many Republican activists will be pleased to help out, given the unusual circumstances. Many of us would gladly toss money to a traveling circus if it were slated to displace the current crew in office.

But why should this private funding end after the inauguration? This seems like a good way to fund the executive in general. Only people who support the government should help pay for it. The party in power can only spend money that it can raise on its own and only from people who support its policies.

This practice recalls the great medieval moral tradition which demanded that "the king should live of his own," that is, spend only his own money. Even the armies working for the king were paid only in money that the king himself could round up. The system wasn’t perfect, and, yes, acquiring the money involved graft and bribe giving and taking. But that was a lot cheaper than income taxes. If the king had tried to do what presidents do today routinely, he would have been quickly overthrown.

So Bush and Cheney have started out on very solid footing. They are paying their own way. Let’s institutionalize this while we can.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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