Stay Out of Politics

Tea Party Economist

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A few days ago, I received an e-mail from an old friend. One of their family friends had just suffered a stroke. I knew who the old friend was. He had served for two years in a high office in the federal government during the Nixon and Ford administrations. A decade earlier, he had served for one term as a Congressman.

He had resigned from Congress in order to run for governor. He lost the race by a razor-thin margin. The campaign had received national attention, because he was a Republican running in a southern state that had not elected a Republican governor since the Reconstruction era.

As far as I know, he was only elected to office once, and he was only appointed to high office once. His total political experience in office was about four years. He did become a familiar figure in Republican Party politics for over 40 years. He was never a household name, but he did achieve a certain amount of influence in the background for a generation.

I never heard of any scandal associated with his name. He was generally conservative in his outlook. He was the heir of a successful family business, and that business still remains profitable. So, by any standard that we would normally apply to someone, he was a success.

Now, at age 85, he is unlikely to reenter politics or business. If he survives, he will probably be hampered by the effects of his stroke. Under these circumstances, a person is certainly entitled to depart from public life and business life. He has served voters, he has served two Presidents, and he has served customers. As far as I am concerned, his life has been a success.

Nevertheless, because of the nature of politics, being a success in the background is not sufficient for those who have been bitten by the political bug. Their hope is to change the country by means of political action. They want to have at least a Wikipedia entry, as this man has. But the entry indicates little more than the fact that he experienced a political defeat that had seemed important at the time, but which is now forgotten. Most politicians want more.

The political bug, when it bites, seems to transmit a disease that is close to incurable. People keep coming back to be bitten again and again. The ambition that is transmitted by the political bug is such that people seem to be afflicted with it all of their lives.


I have heard of people who have the same affliction of ambition with respect to business. But business is different from politics. A successful business involves serving customers on a long-term basis. Day after day, month after month, year after year, a businessman serves the desires of customers. There are successes that register in the corporation’s profit and loss statement. There are daily challenges, but there are daily victories.

A businessman learns through trial and error how to serve the needs of customers. After a time, he usually gets good enough at this so that he can do it in a consistent manner. He can see, on a quarterly basis, how well he is doing. He is able to see that customers are satisfied with the output of his labor. He can see that he has been a success on a small scale over a long period of time.

In the case of somebody who wants to be a political player, there is almost no measurable feedback unless he is elected to office. If he is elected to office, election after election, he can assume that the voters are satisfied with his performance. Yet it is very difficult for him to see that he has had any influence in shaping anyone’s life. A businessman knows that his products make the lives of his customers better. But how does a politician know this? How does he know that being reelected is the same as a businessman’s knowledge that his products have satisfied customer demand?

This is one of the great defects of politics. The person who devotes his life to politics rarely can see that his investment has made a significant difference in anybody’s life. Only in the rarest of circumstances do we find that a very high official is in a position to change the nature of political life, or to fundamentally alter the direction in which political life has been headed.


When a person looks back over 40 years or 50 years of activity in the realm of politics, he is hard-pressed to see that his investment paid off. A businessman can usually see that steady improvements in his product line or services can be measured. He can see that product quality has improved, or that the number of products he offered for sale continued to increase over a long period of time. He has a sense of progress that stems from the fact that he can see with his own eyes, or at least through the eyes of his advertisers, that he was able to affect positively the lives of customers.

The politician looks back at 40 years of service and probably finds that he either voted with large numbers of people in the legislature, which means that his vote really did not make a difference, or else he voted on the losing side repeatedly, in which case they can also be sure that he had little effect.

The great exception to this rule is Ron Paul. He voted against legislation from 1976 until the present, and he was usually outvoted by large majorities. At the same time, no bill that he ever proposed became a law. So, you might think that he would look back at his efforts and conclude that he might as well have stayed out of politics. Yet, in this unique case, his lack of victories in Congress contributed to his enormous success in talking to voters about the nature of American politics and economics. His defeats gave him what Teddy Roosevelt referred to as a bully pulpit.

Ron Paul’s bully pulpit has now changed the thinking of millions of voters. As an educational venture, his decades of lost votes and a seemingly lost cause have led to a political outcome that would have been inconceivable when he began as a freshman Congressman in 1976. I speak with authority, because I was on his staff at that time. We had no thought that, almost four decades later, he would have a national audience, and that even in retirement he will be able to maintain a large audience because of YouTube, email, and other Internet outlets. There were no such technologies when he began.

So, from a political point of view, Ron Paul is a player. Yet he never set out to become a player. The technology available to him during most of his years in Congress did not enable him, or anyone like him, to reach a large national audience. He did understand newsletters, and that gave him an audience beyond his congressional district, but that was not the same as YouTube or websites.

The typical politician has no understanding of how to use the media to get out his message, and even if he did, this would do him no good. He has no message. Congressmen came to Ron Paul in 2008 and asked him how they could use the media to raise money in their district. He was polite, but he had to tell them that the reason why he had such a broad audience was that he had a unique message, and this message was being promoted in Congress by nobody else.

The person who wants to become a player in politics has got to stay within the prevailing paradigm. But the prevailing paradigm is that of the Keynesian mixed economy and the American Empire. Stand foursquare behind these two political traditions, and you become a face in the crowd. You are just one more person promoting the world-and-life view that has been promoted by both American political parties since at least 1912. A person who wants to become a player on that basis has to be uniquely gifted and also the beneficiary of political and historical forces that are essentially not controllable by any individual who seeks political influence.

There was no way that Ronald Reagan in 1954, or even 1960, could have known that he would become a major political player as a result of the campaign speech he gave for Barry Goldwater late in Goldwater’s campaign for President in 1964. The importance of that speech was magnified by the overwhelming defeat that Goldwater suffered. That speech elevated him to a position of political influence in California, and that in turn was able to launch his national career.


The number of people who claw their way to the top of the political hierarchy is so limited that it is essentially impossible for a person to begin his political career with any understanding of how he might possibly claw his way to the top. He may have a goal of being on top at some point, in the way that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had early goals, but the series of events that led both of them to the top of the heap, and then to the ash heap, could not have been guessed by either of them. Those two men were among the most skilled political operatives in the history of the 20th century, and their success led to their ultimate defeat. Both of them left the Presidency as disgraced men.

I therefore wonder about the trustworthiness of anybody who seriously thinks that he can become a player in modern American politics, or modern anywhere politics. The odds against a person’s being able to get to the top are so great, that I wonder what kind of motivation it takes for a man to stay in the world of politics long enough to be the beneficiary of unpredictable forces and therefore be able to grab the brass ring of politics.

Ambrose Bierce once described the presidency as the greased pig of American politics. I have a mental picture of a football field filled with hundreds of political hopefuls, all rushing around trying to grab that greased pig. All but a few of the will have nothing to show for their efforts at the end of their lives.

This is not true of business. When you are in business, small victories are relevant. They may or may not add up over time to a major victory, but that takes nothing away from the fact that those little victories, sale by sale, delivered value to customers who made purchases. You do not have to get to the top in business in order to be able to look back at your career and conclude that your time was well spent.


In politics, it is all too easy to look back at the end of a career and wonder if all that investment of time and money and emotion amounted to anything. How would you assess the degree of success in the life’s work of a politician who never became famous? What are the standards by which you would evaluate such a political career?

I am convinced that the desire to become a political player is self-defeating in almost all cases. A person may be elected for many terms, yet he still cannot in confidence look back at the time he spent and be sure that he had not wasted his life. He had better have a philosophy that teaches that small victories, even though not perceived by the public, do add up over time. But that is basically a statement of trust in historical progress that cannot be verified by the logic of politics. It is a statement of faith, not a statement of measurable political criteria.

When we think of what it would take to reverse the modern welfare-warfare state, it is beyond our power of comprehension. The thing is so huge, the tradition so entrenched, the voting bloc so broad, and the special interests so well-organized, that anyone who thinks that he ought to devote the rest of his life to campaigning against this had better have a deeply theological view of the efficacy of politics. Why? Because most people would regard the task as suitable for Don Quixote. Most people would serve as Sancho Panza, warning the half-crazed knight that he was wasting his time.


Yet in every field, significant changes come by way of small, probably invisible improvements over time. This applies to politics. The fact that someone’s campaign to shrink the state by means of budget cutbacks has failed, decade after decade, does not mean that the effort was a failure. This is because of the logic of political life. If you begin with the assumption that bad politics produces bad economics, and that people ultimately will vote their pocketbooks, then you ought to conclude that fighting the Keynesian mixed economy will eventually pay off.

It is not that the criticism of Keynesian economics will roll back Keynesian economic policies. Rather, it is that Keynesian economics ultimately must go bankrupt, because, as Margaret Thatcher said, socialism ceases to work when it runs out of other people’s money. The same is true of Keynesian interventionism. The system is inherently self-defeating. It just takes a long time for this to become obvious.

The advantage to a politician who is critical of the system is this: at some point, voters will look for explanations as to why the Keynesian welfare state went bankrupt. It is when they look for explanations of the failure, which means a failure that Keynesians produced, there will come a time in which politicians and publicists will be able to pin the tail on the Keynesian donkey. There will come a day of reckoning, and that is when the payoff comes for the economist, journalist, or politician who steadfastly warned against the inevitable outcome of Keynesian economic policies.

In other words, the payoff may come years after the retirement of the economists, columnists, and politicians who had warned against the Keynesian system. I worked with an older generation of economists and publicists who did just exactly that, and they received little credit in their lifetimes. They surely did not make a lot of money. But, in retrospect, their efforts to warn against the bankrupting effects of Keynesian policies are now beginning to pay off. They are long dead. But their ideas have begun to spread.

This is why we have to take a long-term view of our political efforts. There is no guarantee, or even obvious likelihood, that a principled stand against the welfare-warfare state is going to pay off as a direct result of our stand. On the contrary, in the face of overwhelming support for the welfare-warfare state, and the popularity of using political coercion to loot the body politic, the person who stands against the direction in which we are headed seems to be a utopian. He is out of step. He gains no traction through the existing political order.

But, in the long run, the welfare-warfare state will bankrupt itself. This is part of the message of the critics. For as long as the system bumbles along, the public will assume that the critics are utopians. The public believes that the handouts will never end. But they will end. And, when they end, a younger generation of voters and would-be political players will find that there was a systematic body of opinion that had warned against what was coming.

It is not that a younger generation will be able to say, “We told you so.” It is that a younger generation will be able to say, “They told you so, and we are with them.” This is what Ron Paul has been saying about the works of Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Henry Hazlitt. He is correct. They did sound a warning. They did provide an analytical framework by which they made accurate predictions about the looming insolvency of the welfare-warfare state.


I would hope that nobody reading this has the desire to become a political player. I hope that no one expects that he will be able to go to Washington and change the system. The system will change, as a result of its own internal contradictions, whether or not this or that critic of Keynesianism is elected to Congress. There will not be enough people sharing his views to enable them to change the direction of the present political economy. But, at some point, people who preach this message will gain traction with the voters. When the checks from Washington bounce, voters will be ready to hear the story of why the checks are bouncing, or why the dollar has sunk in purchasing power.

I feel sorry for anybody who is bitten by the political bug. He thinks that he will personally benefit from years of backslapping, fundraising, and sitting in silence while expert witnesses drone on and on and on. He thinks that this is price of his footnote in history. He wants to get his 15 minutes of fame. Really, he wants to get years of fame, and then he wants that capstone of American politics: his picture on a calendar of American Presidents that is hung in public school classrooms around the nation.

Hardly anybody gets his picture on that calendar. Of those who do, most are forgotten by the parents of the students in the classroom, and the students in the classroom never pay any attention to the calendar.

I think of Bill Clinton, and I wonder what Clinton thinks his legacy will be in the history textbooks. Other than his affair with Monica Lewinsky, which will have to be carefully edited by the authors of the textbooks, what was his legacy? If high school civics teachers ask on a final exam, “What was Clinton’s unique legacy?” a few very well-informed students will write, “He was the first President since Andrew Johnson to be impeached.”

I think of Jimmy Carter. His main legacies are phrases. The famous one, “Trust me,” is famous because everybody laughs at in retrospect. His other phrase, “malaise,” he never actually said. But voters thought he said it, and Reagan won overwhelmingly. Then Reagan made famous his phrase, “morning in America.” When we look at Reagan’s deficits, beginning in 1983, we know that the phrase should been “mourning in America.”


I have known a lot of people who wanted to be political players. The only person I have ever known who actually became a political player is Ron Paul, and he never had any intention of becoming a political player.

Politics is long, hard, thankless work. Not many people are cut out for it. Those who seem to have the gift would be wise to content themselves with a life of political defeats. The reason for this is clear: political victories today are based on the politics of plunder. It is best not to be associated in any way with the politics of plunder.

June 16, 2012

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2012 Gary North