Tuning Out of Politics

Commentary by Pete du Pont

There's an old joke about the man who was asked in a poll, "Do you think the nation has a problem with ignorance and apathy?" To which he responded, "I don't know and I don't care."

That wasn't one of the questions asked in a recent national poll commissioned by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. But those who conducted the poll concluded that they got the equivalent of that answer from a lot of people. Many Americans simply are tuned out of national politics, the polltakers said. For example, four out of 10 couldn't name the vice president.

Maybe the results do show widespread ignorance and apathy among the electorate (or potential electorate). But a discouraging alternative possibility is that maybe, just maybe, a lot of people have decided they can make better use of their time doing something else. It certainly does not promote the democratic process when one contemplates that, no matter who is elected president or U.S. senator or representative, after the election we'll still have to deal with the same old people and the same old rules and regulations at the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security and the Environmental Protection Agency and all the rest of government; and we'll still face as much paperwork and senseless nit-picking as now.

Little by little over the past 60 years, a series of Congresses and presidents created the bureaucratic leviathan that tries to control so much of our daily lives, and is so unresponsive to the public will. As the late libertarian economist Murray Rothbard wrote, "A permanent bureaucracy does not lend itself to changes in political efforts."

Even Congress and the president are often thwarted by the creature they have spawned. When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, Harry Truman said, "Poor Ike. It won't be a bit like the Army. He'll sit here and he'll say, 'Do this, do that,' and nothing will happen."

That was in 1952. Today there are dozens more bureaus, agencies and departments of the federal government, all with their own sets of regulations, most crafted with the best of intentions but nevertheless often causing confusion, gridlock and frustration. Sometimes they provoke laughter as well.

For example: EEOC rulings that Hooters must hire male waitresses; chest hair and all; and that fitting attendants in women's clothing store dressing rooms must sometimes be male as well. But what about ladies who might be changing and bare to the waist? "Bare above the waist or below it, what's the difference?" one bureaucrat was alleged to have said. -

For example: EEOC rulings that Hooters must hire male waitresses; chest hair and all; and that fitting attendants in women's clothing store dressing rooms must sometimes be male as well. But what about ladies who might be changing and bare to the waist? "Bare above the waist or below it, what's the difference?" one bureaucrat was alleged to have said.

Large numbers of people are disturbed about the influence; the bad influence, in their opinion; government rules and regulations have had on their family lives; the direction of their schools, and the quality of their health care; the encouragement of out-of-wedlock births, and the government's effort to outlaw any public display of religion.

This doesn't necessarily mean that government employees are bad people. They too are taxpayers, citizens and family members. But people who hold power over other people are going to exercise that power. Those who regulate are going to write more regulations. Some regulators; the EPA offers some prime examples; are so arrogantly zealous that they keep trying to criminalize more and more activities that aren't crimes. For example, John Pozsgai of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, went to prison for cleaning up old tires and rusting cars and putting clean fill dirt on some land he had bought. Why? Because the EPA considered the dump a wetland.

To add insult to injury, one reason taxes are high is to pay government employees higher wages than the private sector offers. In 1991, for example, the average pay of federal employees was 26% higher than that of private sector employees. And when fringe benefits and time off were considered, federal pay was 64% higher.

Considering the pervasiveness of government bureaucracy in our lives, perhaps the wonder is that more Americans haven't disconnected from government, and decided they'd rather quit than fight. This kind of disaffection is bad for democracy.

One reason the Republicans' Contract With America caused so much excitement among the electorate was that it seemed to promise something of a mini-revolution in the way the government works. But the Contract's proposals were watered down in the Senate, and stone-walled or vetoed at the White House. So, not much has changed, and people shake their heads and say, "see...it doesn't work."

For years the politicians have tried to use a scalpel to remove the bureaucratic cancers. It hasn't worked. So maybe it's time for a meat ax. The polls show that lots of people think so.