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Beltway Books: It takes leadership

Books | Politicians still cannot repeal the basic laws of economics

Issue: "Lyons thrown to Baptists," Sept. 20, 1997

The summer was a slow time in Washington. Congress thankfully went home after approving the sort of big-spending, high-taxing compromise, which Republicans two years ago were fighting against.

The GOP's failure to fight for significant tax relief will encourage the growth of the underground economy, a worldwide phenomenon discussed by Owen Lippert and Michael Walker in The Underground Economy. Revenue-minded politicians continually seek new enforcement tools to expose and suppress illicit activity. Letting people keep more of their own money would be a much better strategy.

But then, that's not likely to happen when legislators of all partisan stripes enjoy distributing taxpayer largess to any interest group with more than three members. In The People's Lobby Elisabeth Clemens suggests that today's organized plundering is an unintended outgrowth of the populist and progressive movements that began a century ago.

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Their activities helped break party loyalty and transform the political game, but, she observes, these groups did not end up controlling the process. "If the identities of the players, the distribution of power, and the potency of various resources had changed, the ability of the powerful to play a disproportionate role in politics had not." Which is all too evident in Washington today.

The power of well-organized interest groups makes the Bill of Rights all the more important for those on the losing end of various political struggles. In From Parchment to Power, Robert Goldwin describes how Madison came to author the Bill of Rights. Goldwin contends that Madison succeeded in his basic goal by closing "the parenthesis left open by the Framers," thereby winning "the allegiance of the great mass of the people."

America's leadership today leaves much to be desired, especially when compared to the men and women of character who rose to meet past challenges. One of them is Robert E. Lee. In Robert E. Lee, historian Emory Thomas gives us the Confederate general "whole." It's a wonderful read that moves beyond hagiography and demonstrates that Lee, though more complex than often presented, is as great, and perhaps even greater, than commonly thought.

Courageous leadership is also needed in poor countries seeking to reform their economies. As the authors of various chapters in Institutions and Economic Development demonstrate, governments need to do more than toss out socialist policies. Reformers also must create institutions to protect property rights, enforce contracts, streamline government rulemaking, and so on.

These kinds of changes, though most likely to benefit the poor, run into sustained opposition from the usual interest groups. That is why real reform must arise within the system, and cannot be imposed from abroad, with or without generous contributions of foreign aid.

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