THE ONE ASPECT of liberal legislation that delights conservatives is what they call its "unanticipated consequences." Now it's the liberals' turn to laugh, for that great triumph of conservatism, California's Proposition 13, has turned out to have a very unanticipated consequence. It seems that even when local governments have a surplus, and can reduce taxes, they are afraid to act. The reason: If they find themselves needing more revenue in the future, they will be faced with Proposition 13 requirement that new local tax increases be supported by a two-thirds vote of the people.
Speaking of conservatives, wouldn't you expect a conservative state like Virginia with a conservative governor like John Dalton to believe in self-reliance on the part of its business and government? Well, Virginia applied for extra funds from Amtrak for the Washington-Newport News corridor and Amtrak countered with an offer to pick up 80 percent of the additional cost if the state would pay the rest. The state refused. It wanted a straight handout, something for nothing, in the good old conservative tradition. Would the enterprises along the way that benefit from Amtrak -- like Kings Dominion, Busch Gardens, Colonial Williamsburg, and the many businesses centered around them -- pay the 20 percent? Of course not. Like all today's good, solid American businessmen, they, too, want a handout.
Now let's turn to the world of the liberals, where a strange new logic is cropping up. One example: Two rich blacks shot two members of a poor black family in Maryland. The killers pleaded self-defense. The NAACP claimed that Maryland officials set their bail too high, and their lawyers argued that the police should have believed the rich blacks' story because, when whites are involved, officers defer to the claims of the rich over the poor.
Another example: E. L. Doctorow, in a recent issue of The Nation, finds it "very odd" that, when Ronald Reagan was governor, "he went home at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and forgot the job until the next morning," and that he "scrupulously kept his private life private." Something new for liberals to be concerned about, this business of protecting privacy -- not as worrisome, perhaps, as excessive police deference to poor blacks, but still a serious matter.
In the same article, Doctorow seems to find something sinister in the fact that in the 1930, Reagan, in broadcasting play-by-play accounts of Chicago baseball games on the basis of ticker-tape reports, "made an art of describing the game as if he were sitting in the stands, faking the scene in all its drama with only a sound effects man to help him." Doctorow sees this as the beginning of Reagan's "peculair affinity for simulated life." If so, it was an affinity Reagan shared with almost every other sports broadcaster of his era, because the description of almost all "away" baseball games was based on the same mixture of imagination and Western Union. Elsewhere in the article, Doctorow refers to "the soul-murdering complacency of our provinces," and describes Reagan's undergraduate years as "a third-rate student at a fifth-rate college" -- displaying that intuitive gift for reaching out to the average man that has brought the intellectual left to its present commanding position in our national political life.
Ronald Reagan recently told a private meeting of reporters and editors that for his administration, "I want people who don't want a job in government. I want people who will have to take a step down to take a position in government." He went on to say he would not choose people to pay off campaign debts.
I think he is dead wrong. I came to Washington to work in the government, in large part because of the work I had done in John F. Kennedy's campaign in West Virginia in 1960. I was a politician. I was a politician because I enjoyed it and because I hoped it would lead to a chance to function in government. Because of the importance of West Virginia to the Kennedys and because I was a lawyer and thus somewhat easier to hire without regard to ordinary civil service rules, I came to Washington and had a chance to participate in the administration that I had helped elect. And because I was a political appointee, I had a stake in helping it to perform well so that it would be reelected and I would be reappointed.
But even then my case was very unusual. There were only a handful of people in any federal agency whose appointments had anything to do with politics. In fact, the Washington air was already so full of Merit Is Good, Politics Is Bad, that I was embarrassed by the reason for my job and did not hang my autographed picture of John Kennedy on my office wall until Nov. 23, 1963.
Such embarrassment seems pathetic to me now. Why shouldn't I have been proud to have worked in politics? Why shouldn't I have assumed that if I wanted a chance to work in government, I had an obligation to help elect that government? And why shouldn't I have expected that if I worked effectively in that campaign and displayed the kind of judgment and dedication needed in government that I would be rewarded by a chance to serve in government?
The reasons are many, but the main one, I think, is that the Boss Tweed and other political scandals of the post-Civil War era convinced America that politics was bad. Today you hear John Anderson piously refer to "the political process," when the word politics would do just as well if it didn't sound dirty. What happened was that Americans began to equate politics with crooked politics. They replaced politicians with civil servants, so that today we have a federal government that is 99 percent civil service, and state and local governments that are rapidly approaching that figure. The catch is that, by abandoning politics, we have abandoned democracy. The people we elect no longer have a chance to change the government because they can't change its personnel. Smart people realize this. That's why so few of them run for office or bother to vote.
The answer to crooked politics is not an unaccountable civil service but clean politics.
But most of the country remains brainwashed by the idea that politics has to be bad. Witness Anderson and Reagan. Or Reagan's daughter, Patti, who told one interviewer that nuclear power is an issue "beyond" and "more important" than politics. Or take a recent study of the FAA that concluded that FAA administrators must be "competent, nonpolitical people." Or the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, which has postponed its report until after the November election in order to be "above partisan politics." Maybe the campaign should be postponed until after the election so that it too could be above politics.
People who can afford to go on cruises tell me there is always some seminar on "Hematology Today" or "Fractures of the Lumbar Region" being held below deck, always sparsely attended, but always there. It's there so your friendly doctor can deduct the cost of the cruise from his income tax. While your physician is lounging beside the pool or dancing in the bar, he is fulfilling a requirement that now exists in more than 20 states that he subject himself to some kind of continuing education each year.