I recently took a group of students to a conference at Georgetown University, and we tacked on a day to electrically scoot ourselves all over Washington D.C. Don't get me wrong: I was thrilled to see the Air and Space Museum, and for my students to steep themselves in various forms of art and culture at the Smithsonians. After all, I helped bring a busload of Lindenwood students to the grand opening of the Museum of African-American History and Culture several years back. We were stunned and inspired.
Yet a strange sentiment settled upon me as I took in lovely neighborhoods, chic shopping districts, and well-coifed people on my red circulator bus ride to Union Station. The façade betrays what is inwardly rotten. Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the outward appearance is sustained by a demonic secret: the transference of all the terrible consequences of evil actions onto a hideous image hidden in the attic.
The sense in which Washington D.C.'s beauty is hiding a terrible secret has more to do with the surrounding wealth of K street, where the lobbyists make their living, and the neighboring counties in which they and the politicians all reside. Like the narrator of Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, I happen to be privy to information not widely known: eight suburbs surrounding Washington D.C. rank in the top 13 richest counties in the country. These counties didn't even experience the 2008 recession. I don't hold that there's anything intrinsically wrong with being rich, but I happen to know how lobbying works, and these riches don't come from being productive. Rather, as Mancur Olson so aptly explained in The Logic of Collective Action, interest groups - often corporate entities - are perversely incentivized to garner favors from their representatives, in a (usually successful) attempt to shut out smaller competitors. These favors include piles of regulations that will scare off non-established businesses, subsidies and price-fixing for agri-business, patent abuse in the pharmaceutical industry, military deals for Boeing and Lockheed, and a plethora of others. But to support this corrupt marriage of guaranteed campaign contributions and lazy profit, a veritable army of lobbyists and political aides have descended upon Washington D.C., all looking pristine, like they just walked off the set of a Brooks Brothers commercial.
Olson's great insight, and that of public choice theorists in general, is that this dashing young gentleman of a city is hiding the costs of his sins in the rotting flesh of the American taxpayer. The price-tag for all of these dealings is borne by you and me - costs dispersed over tens of millions of people. Because each individual subsidy, monopoly, price-fixing program, and regulation doesn't add up to much, it's nigh impossible for the everyday taxpayers to band together as an interest group of their own and protest the fleecing. But all together, these favors add up to a huge percentage of our income, and that doesn't even take into account the costs of market distortions in economic efficiency and opportunity. The dashing and urbane young man is picking the winners and the losers among businesses, but the real loss is the unseen: the entrepreneur that was too discouraged by the bureaucracy to begin; the teenager from a tough neighborhood who could never get on the first rung of the employment ladder; the inventor whose genius got shuffled under a mountain of expensive FDA requirements; even our diets (!), fatally influenced by the subsidized corn syrup industry and the price-fixed sugar industry. The list could go on, and it adds up to a sickly and boil-covered visage like the one in Gray's attic.
This is cronyism. This is the enemy of the people.
Frederic Bastiat made the case over 150 years ago: don't forget to pay attention to what is not seen. Imagine the things that could have been, if we didn't dress up social leeches in designer suits and call them public servants. Enjoy D.C.; visit a Smithsonian; but when you look up and get a weird feeling, like maybe you just walked onto the set of the Truman Show, don't doubt your gut. There's no genuine beauty where the gains are ill-gotten.