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The Circus of Politics



As the 1996 political circus demonstrates, we Americans are more and more seeing our increasingly spoiled and unresponsive politicians and bureaucrats for the clowns that they are. What we need are more jokes about the government; more, and funnier, about Leviathan’s every limb.

Mark Twain: “First God made imbeciles. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” Will Rogers: “I don’t make jokes; I just watch the government and report the facts.” Or the old, pretty funny standby, The Three Most Unbelievable Statements: “The check is in the mail;” “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning;” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” That last line has done more to slow the growth of government than any number of Commissions of Paperwork—whose first act, of course, is to send out paperwork to measure the paperwork.

The American tradition of ridiculing government dates back at least to Mark Twain, whose A Pen Warmed-Up in Hell is a wonderful collection of some of his most scathing writings. But H. L. Mencken, the American master of satire, laid down the general principle in 1924: “I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.” His time was better spent laughing at the puritans, the holy rollers, the “boobocracy,” and above all the United States Government. Forty years of his newspaper and magazine columns are gathered in his own selections in A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing and in selections by Alistair Cooke in The Vintage Mencken: The Finest and Fiercest Essays of the Great Literary Iconoclast. Old newspaper columns are not worth reading unless you’re the New World’s answer to Jonathan Swift. Mencken was, from 1910 to 1950. And most recently, we are blessed that A Second Mencken Chrestomathy: A New Selection from the Writings of America’s Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit, assembling more of Mencken’s best work has also been published.

Showing government as ridiculous is the best way to confront it. The ridicule is better than guns and even most elections, both of which merely replace one set of humorless dolts with another. Look at Poland, where everyone in the end just laughed the Communists out of power, without a shot fired. In his book, Holidays in Hell: In Which Our Intrepid Reporter Travels to the World’s Worst Places and Asks, “What’s Funny about This?”, the Menckenite P. J. O’Rourke tells a shopping joke from pre-reform Poland (in Communist Poland, noted O’Rourke, there was a joke about everything): A man waits in line for six hours, and then is told there is no meat. He starts raving: “This is an outrage! Socialism is madness! The System stinks!” A trench-coated secret policeman comes up to him putting his arm around him confidentially: “Comrade, comrade! Control yourself: you know, in the old days, we would have done this” and then he uses a cocked finger to pantomime shooting the man in the head. The man goes home and his wife says, “What! Six hours and they’re out of meat?: “It’s worse than that,” replies the man, “They’re out of bullets.”

For a long time after Mencken, the only place America got free-market satire was in cartoons. There’s a libertarian streak among the cartoonists that you don’t find in the scribes of the 1950s (of course) or even of the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s (see, for example, Fred Barnes, ed., A Cartoon History of the Reagan Years). Mad magazine was no respecter of the unconstitutional powers of the IRS. Herblock’s bomb-headed thugs made it hard to stop worrying and love the Department of Defense. This was at a time when the typewriters of Art Buchwald and Russell Baker were telling us, as they still unfunnily are, that we just need to get the right people in the IRS or the Department of Defense.

Recently we’re beginning to see Menckenite stuff again, tough and funny and libertarian. For example, Dave Barry, the Miami Herald columnist, campaigned for president on college campuses on a platform of Louise. Louise “would be a regular, tax-paying citizen with children who has occasional car trouble and zero experience in government. The Department of Louise would have total veto power of everything.” Funny. Funny. And tell me why it’s not a perfectly reasonable proposal. To learn more about Mr. Barry’s proposals you’ll need a copy of Dave Barry’s Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book and his Dave Barry Slept Here: Sort of History of the United States.

P. J. O’Rourke collects his travel columns for Rolling Stone and other magazines in Holidays in Hell, and never spares the government of the day. On a strip show in Warsaw: “To grasp the true meaning of socialism, imagine a world in which everything is designed by the post office, even the sleaze.” O’Rourke, an Ohio State grad, usually manages to restrain his enthusiasm for the best and brightest on the shuttle from Harvard Square to Washington. In his funny and, again, perfectly reasonable proposals to cut the size of the federal government he decided not to cut the budget for embassies because “the State Department gives us a way to send Ivy League nitwits overseas.”

John Updike notes in the New Yorker that Menckenish humor is no good without “Mencken’s old-newsman’s interest in the nitty-gritty of American life.” That’s right. Mencken knew the American language, the American saloon, the American politician. So does Barry, and especially O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s masterpiece is A Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government, a travelogue from the Land of Government. His theme is that we have gotten the government we deserve. He goes to the Department of Transportation. The bureaucrats, he finds, are not stupid or evil when they investigate “sudden-acceleration incidents” (“silly people with lawyers get into an Audi 5000” and the car leaps forward by itself “through the back wall of their garage and onto the CBS ‘60 Minutes’ television program”). The bureaucrats are sent by us on an impossible mission namely, being a branch of the United States Government. At DOT they “had to make their investigation . . . not because they’re foolish but because we are.”

Well said. “Every decent man,” wrote Mencken, “is ashamed of the government he lives under.” Of Congress he wrote, “Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons.” O’Rourke makes a more subtle point. Yes, they are poltroons. But we make them that way! The devil made them do it; and we have met the devil and he is us. One only has to peruse a book like Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, to appreciate the extraordinary contradictions and utterly stupid fads to which mass opinion can be self-deluded.

Many recent scholarly students of government have arrived at a similar conclusion. Some Americans have always liked to use the government to interfere with other people’s lives, from the 17th-century village to the Internal Revenue Service. O’Rourke attends closely to a town meeting in his New England home and it strikes him suddenly what Robert Higgs (author of Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government), James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock (authors of The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, Milton and Rose Friedman (authors of Tyranny of the Status Quo), Ludwig von Mises (author of Bureaucracy) and company have all along been talking about: “The whole idea of our government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take something and not pay for it.” Or as Sydney Smith wrote a century and half ago, “Benevolence is a natural instinct of the human mind; when A sees B in distress, his conscience always urges him to entreat C to help him.” And if he has a government handy he can take something from C and give it to the distressed person, such as the sugar farmer with 10,000 acres in Louisiana or the defense contractor with golden parachutes to finance in Seattle.

Three cheers, then, for the new political satire, a funnier version of the new political science. People who think on the contrary that we should go on putting every second dollar through the government are distressed by the joking. If we make fun of government, they say, we won’t “get good people into public service.”

But as the old farmer said, “When I hear the word ‘service’ I always wonder who’s getting screwed.” Mencken writes in A Choice of Days (a collection from his series of autobiographical volumes), that at the turn of the century “the pestilence of Service which torments the American people today was just getting under way, and many of the multifarious duties now carried out by social workers, statisticians, truant officers, visiting nurses, psychologists, and the vast rabble of inspectors, smellers, spies and bogus experts of a hundred different faculties either fell to the police or were not discharged at all.” The fans of big government worry that harsh words such as these, or modern jokes about Beltway Bandits and the Post Office will discourage smart people from going into Government “service.”

Bless us, we do not need smart people in government. It would be like having smart people in the Mafia or in the Chinese Communist Party. As O’Rourke notes, “When it’s better for enthusiastic and ambitious professionals to go to work for a country’s government than it is for them to go to work, the country is in trouble.” Whenever I visit Washington, I get depressed seeing all those people employed by the government walking around looking smart. Oh, all right—looking well educated. Okay, okay—neatly dressed. Here are people who could be doing something useful, like advertising or prostitution. Instead they are paid my money to take my money and throw it away. “Giving money and power to government,” says O’Rourke “is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” Giving it to smart people makes it worse.

We get some smart people in government, too many, because we want them there. We Americans are not as cynical as we think. We actually believe that if more of the right people (the smart people, you see, the good people, the best and brightest) were to get into the government it would stop being funny. You have to admit that an electorate that chose Carter, Reagan and Bush in sequence has not really gotten the joke.

Americans laugh at government, but we do not laugh with the philosophical depth that the Poles or the Italians can bring to the job. Europeans and others view politicians as parasites, for good historical reasons. An inherited aristocracy was parasitical. American optimism on this score probably explains why we are so good at self-organization. We actually believe that if the Ocean Waves Square Dancing Club or the rifle platoon on the beach at Anzio gets the Right Leader then it will work. And so it does. We Americans are geniuses at self-organization, as Europeans, who must get all their organization from the government, cannot understand (Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America actually did; but since then his fellow Europeans keep missing the dense undergrowth of voluntary organizations in the country). The trouble is that what works in the Ocean Waves does not work in the United States Navy.

Americans are cockeyed optimists, but satire is the pessimist’s art, best in the hands of people like Mark Twain or Mencken. And so American political humor is mostly of the Throw-the Bums-Out variety; get the Good Guys in. Britons, for example, can be more insightful, as in Monty Python or any of the other violently funny satires on British television—even the state-owned television. The series, Yes Minister, skewered the arrogance of the permanent civil service and the poltroonery of Parliament. Its scripts are nicely paraphrased in The Complete Yes Minister. The civil servants and the members of Parliament, though, were big fans of the program, just as they are big fans of the scurrilous and hilarious weekly magazine, Private Eye. The elite in Britain laughs at itself. We Americans take government too seriously.

We’re too serious and yet too easy-going to have the European tradition of political satire. But as O’Rourke writes, “Feeling good about government is like looking on the bright side of any catastrophe. When you quit looking on the bright side, the catastrophe is still there.” It’s time to grow up and get seriously pessimistic. The best way to do to it is to tune into the childish humor of Barry, O’Rourke, and their lunatic company, from Aristophanes to Mencken and beyond.


Deirdre N. McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois in Chicago.






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