Politics & Policy

Immodest Government

Representative Todd Akin (R., Mo.)
Akin’s messianic ego is all too typical of the political class.

The most telling remark by Missouri Senate candidate Representative Todd Akin was not his inane comment about “legitimate” rape and a woman’s magic uterus, but his claim that he would not drop out of the race because of how important his election is for “the cause.” The polls show him losing by a large margin against one of the Senate’s weakest incumbents, and every major Republican from Mitt Romney on down has repudiated him, but Akin knows that he really is the indispensable candidate. He has “been called,” he says, to lead us.

The messianic ego that Akin is displaying has become all too typical of the political class. How often do members of Congress voluntarily step down? Republicans and Democrats jointly maneuvered to defeat term limits. Now even the self-limiters have fallen by the wayside, as legislators decide that they owe it to their constituents to hold on to their seats forever — until, that is, they decide to run for a higher office. Change their district, they will move to run in the new one. No barrier is so great that it can prevent them from getting back to Washington, where they can serve and protect us.

Don’t think for a moment that this has anything to do with a particular political party. Recall President Obama’s declaration that his nomination marked “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Ego is bipartisan.

Obviously it takes a certain amount of ego to run for office in the first place. No one would volunteer to go through the rigors of a modern campaign unless they felt that they had something important to offer the American people. And no doubt many current legislators are smart and accomplished men and women.

But once political egos grow beyond a certain size, they become destructive. If you convince yourself that you are indispensable, it becomes very easy to justify casting votes that you know are wrong, to start salting your district with pork, and to vilify your opponents. After all, you tell yourself, these are small prices to pay in order to keep yourself in office.

When politicians begin to think of themselves as being bigger and better than the rest of us, though, it holds more truly worrisome policy implications. This mindset leads them to believe that they know better than we do how to run our lives.

The president and Congress have to decide for us what charities we should support with our money. They need to determine what health-insurance benefits we should buy. From what kinds of light bulbs we buy to how our toilets flush, our political leaders are needed to design and micromanage our lives. They know what we should eat and what we should earn. They understand how much an airline should charge for baggage fees and know, down to the last decimal point, what the proper fee for processing a credit-card transaction is. And they can do all this while fine-tuning the economy and nation-building overseas.

The next great technological breakthrough might be a mystery to most of us, but it won’t be a mystery to the politicians in Washington. They can pick the winners and losers of the future. They know exactly how many miles to the gallon a car should get, and whether oil or wind power is a better investment. When President Obama argues that businessmen didn’t really build their businesses, he is reflecting the Washington mindset. How could business owners do anything on their own? They need Washington.

Of course, Congress also sees itself as uniquely qualified to make our moral choices, because clearly preachers, churches, and our own consciences can’t do the job. Congress isn’t just uniquely brilliant, it’s uniquely moral.

Then again, given Washington’s pretty much unmitigated record of failure, scandal, and simple mismanagement, maybe politicians aren’t as brilliant and moral as they think.

We don’t need politicians who believe they have been called to office, or who think that Greek columns are an appropriate backdrop for their pronouncements. We don’t need leaders who claim, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

From the White House to Congress, we need a bit more modesty in government. We need politicians who understand that, by and large, Americans do just fine on their own. We are perfectly capable of making our own decisions and running our own lives. No politician really is indispensable.

Calvin Coolidge once wrote that “it is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.”

If some of our political leaders can take that to heart, maybe Representative Akin will have accomplished something useful after all.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

Michael TannerMr. Tanner is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Poverty and Inequality in California and the author of The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor.


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