The game as it is played

Posted: Feb 06, 2011 12:00 AM

Hardball. You can actually get injured in baseball. In politics, the “hardball” can be much worse. Deadly.

Politics should be softball. But when times get tough . . . the game goes up a notch.

In normal times, those in power extract a maximum amount of politically feasible wealth from the population, and then buy off votes and support with special favors, programs, what-have-you.

In tough times, it’s not so much “buying” as “threatening.”

Politicians, screaming for more money, are told by the citizenry to make cuts. But they don’t want to take funds out of public employee pensions or pay, or merely by cutting back on all the new spending they recently put in place. Sometimes they get devious.

They have even been known to threaten cuts in core services, government programs that everyone cares about.

The extreme current case is Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. He’s under the gun for being an old, corrupt insider — a tyrant, even — so what does he do?

He opens up the prisons, and he sends out his own agents to loot. The looting makes his opposition look bad. And the released criminals tend to cause chaos, in reaction to which (he hopes) those who sympathize with the protesters will turn coat and beg for protection.

It’s an old racket.

In fact, it’s the oldest government racket around, the protection racket.

In America, we see this sort of thing on the state level, when the first items politicians place on the list for cuts are police and fire protection. Or books for school classrooms.

This is not a constant . . . but it is a recurring theme. I bet you’ve seen it at play, if not in this recession (yet), then the previous.

If all goes well, though, politicians behave nicely, and are forced to make cuts starting with the least consequential.

Somewhere among my files is a press clipping (oh, here) from a small paper out west, bemoaning the loss of some government jobs. Among the positions recently cut is that of an anti-tobacco propagandist. This is not only a non-essential government service, it is, one could argue, a grossly improper government function. Sure, tobacco smoking isn’t exactly good for you. We all know that. But the proper way to deliver this message is from doctor to patient, from non-smoker to smoker.

Not for a tax-supported hired mouthpiece to nanny and hector and preach.

And yet the newspaper story called the job cut “crucial to combating the county’s high smoking rates.” Crucial.

Can an unnecessary government “service” be “crucial”?

The idea that “the people,” in their private (and truly communal) lives, should handle decisions about such pleasures as smoking, and its sometime non-pleasurable consequences, is foreign to the modern way of running government. But the modern way is becoming passé, as we now strain to meet budgets.

Besides, so much of what government does is, itself, illegitimate.

When times get tough, it shouldn’t be “hardball” politicians seek to play. It should be a more joyous game, one of relief. We should be glad to get rid of intrusive government programs, busybodies, nannies. . . .

We should be glad to get rid of paid propagandists telling us how to live (even if we agree with them).

Politicians can either view the current situation as an opportunity for reform or to cling to power, like Mubarak, using the hardest of hardball politics.