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Sham heroics

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Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

In her 2013 biography of America's 30th president, “Coolidge,” Amity Shlaes observes: “Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism and therefore harder to appreciate.”

Her point is as profound as it is correct.

A firefighter who runs into a blazing building to save a stranger's life is heroic. So, too, is a soldier who dives onto a live hand grenade to protect others. Such heroism is easy to recognize and appreciate.

But heroism isn't limited to feats of physical courage. Any significant sacrifice of personal welfare is heroic if it is done for the benefit of others or to uphold what is regarded as right.

Nelson Mandela's fight against apartheid, for which he endured 27 years of imprisonment, was heroic.

But while the record of political figures who have acted heroically can be extended, the full list still would be distressingly short. It would certainly be disproportionately puny compared with the number of monuments and boulevards dedicated to politicians.

A genuinely heroic politician, for example, would seldom vote for deficit spending. He or she would understand that doing so is typically a cowardly maneuver to win votes today with government handouts while passing on to future generations the bill for these handouts.

Of course, economically uninformed pundits and the special-interest groups who benefit from today's debt-financed handouts often praise politicians who vote for these handouts as being “heroic” or “courageous.” Such praise makes as much sense as would, say, praise of actor Christian Bale for being “heroic” in his film exploits as Batman. It's fake heroism. It's not real. It's theater aimed at fooling a large audience into thinking someone is doing something that he or she really isn't doing.

Likewise for politicians who bail out bankrupt corporations, protect farmers from having to sell their produce at low prices or promise older Americans that Social Security payouts will never fall. Sure, these actions help some people, but they are paid for with other people's money. (Take note, by the way, that Social Security “contributions” are not and never have been considered by Uncle Sam to belong to the individual workers who make these forced “contributions.” Social Security is a welfare-transfer scheme cowardly portrayed by politicians as a government-run pension plan.)

But even if you regard such government programs as promoting the public interest, they are hardly manifestations of heroism. Performing such political feats increases politicians' chances of securing and maintaining political office, with its myriad personal benefits and gaudy trappings. Politicians certainly do not put themselves or their careers in any peril by pushing for such programs. Quite the opposite.

Far from acting heroically by resisting interest groups' pleas for special privileges — and by being mindful of the welfare of countless people, such as future taxpayers, who aren't organized into clamorous political lobbies — the typical politician spinelessly promotes his or her own career by picking the pockets of others.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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