Were I tasked with offering one lesson about politics, whether it be to a group of wide-eyed high school sophomores, an over-educated class of grad students, or a conglomerated mass of voters from all over the political spectrum, it would be this:

It’s always about OPM – Other People’s Money.

The high school naifs might be saddened and bubble-burst by that lesson, the over-educated wannabe-world-changers might scoff at the cynicism and insist that their way will, this time, be different, and the voters might find amongst their ranks those who refuse to believe, simply because they’ve been conditioned to invest their trust in politicians of their tribe. Such reactions are natural, born as they are of human nature.

So is my lesson.

Politicians, leaders, activists, do-gooders, and present-day goo-goos make all sorts of pledges and promises about fixing government. Some may even believe those pledges and hope to fulfill those promises. No matter. In time, it’ll end up being about OPM.

George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer who, in a better system, should have been fired long ago, sparked a protest movement that had the potential for motivating reforms that libertarians, civil libertarians, and others suspicious of excessive State power and unaccountability have long called for.

In a mere 5 weeks (Floyd was killed on May 25th), that movement degraded from a focus on good and productive reforms to a broad-brush “Defund the Police!” mantra.

With a concurrent demand that the monies taken out of police budgets be spent on specified other things.

Gone is the focus on issues like qualified immunity, policing-for-profit, unions’ protection of the worst in their ranks, and purging of the nuisance laws that underly so many bad police-community interactions. Sure, people like me are still talking about them, and the handful of politicians who think about liberty rather than OPM are trying to keep the proposals alive, but the politicians and other leaders who’ve been presiding over the systems that have been begging for those reforms for decades, and whose jobs remain safe and secure despite that, are choosing instead (while gleefully hand-rubbing) to capitulate the mob’s Defund The Police chant.

They know they get to spend that ‘liberated’ OPM in ways that’ll help their re-election.

You’ll find OPM at the heart of just about every political scrum, and it’s why it seems so bloody impossible to cut (actually cut, not shuffle around or reduce increases) spending. Even when there’s purported consensus for spending cuts, those in support go to figurative war to ensure that the cuts only affect others’ districts and constituents. Here’s an obvious one: Every so often, the DoD engages in a BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) exercise, where it attempts to tidy up its operations. As sure as the suN rises, even politicians who have long records of advocating big cuts in military spending will go nonlinear in their efforts to keep “their” bases (i.e. those in their state or district) open. It’s always the other guy’s bases that are non-essential.

There’s never enough OPM, by the way. Progressive diva Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps forgetting that she’s a federal, not local, politician, has declared that $1B in cuts to NYC’s police budget is not nearly enough. While she serves by (possibly – who knows what portion of what comes out of her mouth is actually true) pointing out the sleight-of-hand that is typical of such “cuts,” the truth lies in the lesson: Always OPM. High rhetoric aside, her real goal is to spend more OPM on things that serve her interests.

OPM also infects the private sector’s dealings with government. Why is it that lobbying has such a staggeringly high rate of return? Thousands of dollars aimed at politicians turn into into millions in returns in the blink of an eye. Sure, we hear politicians tell us, all the time, that they want to rein in lobbying, influence-peddling, rent-seeking, and the like. Ever wonder why it never happens? Do I really need to retype OPM?

This reality is why libertarians believe that the only way to better government is to have less of it. If there’s less OPM in play, the incentives it creates also diminish, and other pressures (such as demands that politicians actually honor their oath to uphold the Constitution) will be more effective.

Alas, too many voters are about OPM, as well, and they’re more shameless than ever about it. How else to explain Bernie Sanders’ popularity even as he espouses an ideology that has failed, time and time and time again? How else to explain amok spending from both parties? If enough voters cared about fiscal responsibility, politicians would be obliged to show some. Instead, it’s always and forever about the gravy train, about who’s better at bringing home the bacon, about largess from the public treasury.

The fates seem destined to prove my point. This morning’s New York Post reported, after I penned most of this article, that New York City’s going to try and make up some of the revenue lost due to COVID-19 with a ticket blitz.

The fact is, the reason someone gets a ticket is if they’re doing something wrong. — Bill De Blasio

This blog is awash in condemnations of policing-for-profit, of the practice of treating citizens, and in particular poorer citizens who are less able to fight or complain loudly enough, as revenue centers. Policing-for-profit got Eric Garner killed for selling “loosie” cigarettes (whose tax provenance could not be verified). Remediating policing-for-profit is one of the cornerstone reforms proposed here and elsewhere in response to George Floyd’s murder. Yet, lo and behold, a self-styled progressive superstar not only defends the practice, he justifies it with an appeal-to-law fallacy (see “nuisance laws,” above). Yes, this is supposedly limited to vehicular infractions, but the statement speaks volumes. Reforms that turn their OPM spigot in the wrong direction never seem to happen, no matter how much good they will do.

“Follow the money” is an extremely common cliche in detective stories and police procedurals. It’s common because it’s true, and it’s true because human nature is what it is. Ignoring this reality when it comes to politicians and the public sector is one of the great failings in those of a big-government/good-government belief. They are human, just like us. Rarely, we get a statesman, someone who understands this reality, seeks to dampen its rapacity, and has the charisma to win over the electorate. Slightly less rarely, we get well-intended but flawed leaders, who get it right some of the time, but more often succumb to the siren song of OPM for their priorities. And, even when we get good ones, they are surrounded and often overwhelmed by the far more common wanton ones, those whose lust for OPM is tempered only by having to maintain appearances for the sake of re-election.

Milton Friedman, one of the patron saints of this blog, had a wonderful, must-watch interview with Phil Donahue many years ago, where he spoke on government, free enterprise, and the advancement of the human condition. The crucial quote is here, and the full interview is here. Friedman opens his statement for the ages with “is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed?” and closes with “tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us.”

To understand politics, to understand why the sorts of political changes that would actually improve society rarely happen, you need to start with OPM. It’s always OPM.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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