The Political Red Herrings We Chase


Larry Barnhart
November 1997


What is a Political Red Herring?

Before we worry about political red herrings, we need to know what is meant by the term "red herring." I don't know about you, but I have heard that term used occasionally over the years, but never had it spelled out clearly. To do that, I turned to the dictionary where I found this:

red herring
1.A smoked herring having a reddish color.
2.Something that draws attention from the matter or issue at hand.
(From its use to distract hunting dogs from the trail.)1

If we look at point two, we find that a red herring is a side issue that is used to distract attention from the main issue. The reference to distracting hunting dogs from the trail is particularly fitting, especially given the topic of this article.

Therefore, a political red herring is a political side issue that is given prominence in order to distract attention from more central issues. In this article we will explore three such red herrings that have effectively redirected people's attention from a much avoided central issue. (Whether the red herrings are being used consciously or unconsciously is beyond the scope of this article.)

Political Red Herring 1: Campaign Finance

In order to understand the issue of campaign finance, we must first understand the nature of competition in the marketplace. As human beings who are living in cooperation with others, we have two choices as to how we go about getting that cooperation. The first way is to offer better products and services at lower prices to inspire voluntary purchases from others, or to offer better ideas (or at least a pleasant personality) in order to inspire others to voluntarily associate with us. The second way is to use the force of law to oblige others to buy from us regardless of the poor quality of our goods and services or to coerce people into associating with us regardless of how little value our association represents to others.

A term that has developed to explain the use of government force as a competitive strategy is rent seeking, "generally thought of as the search for profits (what are called monopoly rents) through artificial, government-imposed controls on market activity. . . . Whenever people or businesses look to government to boost their incomes above market-determined levels, some form of rent seeking is generally involved."2 All this rent seeking activity creates "[t]he costs of lobbying and counter-lobbying in order to effect or stop income transfers."3

The impetus for such a system can develop from two points. First, a dominant company in an industry may decide that writing laws to sabotage new competitors is more profitable than investing in new equipment. The second impetus comes from people in government who seek to regulate economic and social behavior in the belief that the people, if left to themselves, will self-destruct. In either case, the result is that the power and influence of government over human activity increases, adding yet another variable for all of us to consider as we go about our daily lives.

The key to solving campaign finance reform-type issues is to stop letting the government be a candy store. If people cannot use the government to confiscate wealth or to minutely manage the affairs of others, people will be obliged to redirect their efforts toward more productive pursuits.

Political Red Herring 2: Term Limits

The main argument in favor of term limits is that people who stay too long in the rarefied air of power acquire too many profitable connections, and thereby are able to plunder the taxpayers with impunity. Of course, changing officials frequently has its disadvantages too. In this environment, organized interest groups can cycle their hand-picked candidates through political office and possibly be even more effective at using the government to accomplish ends that remain a crime for everyone else.

In line with what was covered in the last section, if the government is only about protecting productive citizens from predators, then it makes little difference as to how long elected officials remain in office.

Political Red Herring 3: Balanced Budget

The final issue that we hear a lot about is the Balanced Budget. Of course, not much can be done about that because no special interest wants to relinquish their piece of the pie. Once a privilege has been gained, people will fight to the death to keep it.

Once again, how can we expect to keep people from feeding at the public trough when it is an accepted practice and especially when those who, for whatever reason, do not feed at the trough, will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. If there is any cause for surprise, it is that we, as a nation, have not bankrupt ourselves already.

In Defense of the White House

The current flap about President Clinton and Vice President Gore's phone calls from their offices seems very disingenuous. What difference does it make whether wealth redistributing or liberty limiting phone calls are made from the White House or the OutHouse? "Isn't it all one to the poor flies how they are killed? By a kick of the hooves of horned devils, or by a stroke of the beautiful wings of divine angels?"4

What is the Main Issue?

In general, we have acknowledged that there is a lot of money in politics, but instead of looking at structural issues (what is the nature and function of government in society), we are seeking all kinds of little ways to nit-pick our political competitors to death.

This is the kind of banter that preceded the purges in Soviet Russia and Hitler's Germany. While those in power were supposed to control everything and everyone without any limits, the officials themselves were not supposed to benefit personally. Of course, officials were often caught with their hands in the cookie jar, but instead of only being denounced publicly as they are in America, they received 9MM bullets in back of their heads as well.

The idea that our elected officials should on one hand be as pure as Christ and on the other hand be expected to do the work of the devil is a dangerous flirtation with hypocrisy. The truth is, everyone does what they do for their own gain, even if it is only to be a saint in their own minds. To expect otherwise is to suffer from a delusion.

Let's take a moment to consider the attitude people had toward government in pre-Hitler Germany. ". . . Frederick C. Howe (an American intellectual who played a leading role in the Progressive movement and later served in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal) [wrote] in his book Socialized Germany (1915): 'In the mind of the Germans the functions of the state are not susceptible of abstract, a priori deductions. Each proposal must be decided by the time and the conditions. If it seems advisable for the state to own an industry it should proceed to own it; if it is wise to curb any class or interest it should be curbed. Expediency or opportunism is the rule of statesmanship, not abstraction as to the philosophic nature of the state. . .'"5

If we in America refuse to engage in "abstraction as to the philosophic nature of the state," we will likely devolve into our own form of dictatorship. On the other hand, if we are honest about how we use legal coercion in our relationships with one another, campaign finance, term limits, and balanced budgets will become non-issues.

Before we pass a new law or levy a new tax, let's ask ourselves this question: Is coercion really the best way to solve this problem?

1. American Heritage Electronic Dictionary (Sausalito CA: Writing Tools Group, Inc., 1991).
2. Richard B. McKenzie and Gordon Tullock, The Best of the New World of Economics
(Homewood, Ill. : Irwin ,1989), p. 263.
3. Ibid.
4. G.I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Vol 3. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1950), p. 276.
5. Richard M. Ebeling, "National Health Insurance and the Welfare State," Freedom Daily, January 1994.

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