L. Neil Smith's
Number 284, August 15, 2004

Limited edition "Unauthorized Protester" tee shirt!

Lemonade, Anyone?
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

If there's one stereotyped profession I dislike nearly as much as I loathe the stereotypical politician, it's used car salesmen. And in the midst of this presidential campaign, do you know what I've been doing? Good guess. I've been shopping for a used vehicle.

It's been years since I've purchased a car. The last one I bought was about 15 years ago, and it's turned out to be a real bargain. It still runs well, gets good gas mileage, and by virtue of some years in Arizona and not so much as a single fender bender, it has no rust and only a minor scratch or two on the body. I even still like it. But despite all that, she's old. In car years, she is, in fact, about... well, dead and already recycled.

I'm a relatively organized shopper, particularly when it comes to a big-ticket item like a car. I sit down and consider what it is that I need in my new vehicle. Then I add to the list what I want in a new vehicle. The "need" list is non-negotiable; the "want" list is there to add perks to any deal, or to tip the decision one way or another should all other things prove equal. At the bottom of the list? My own bottom line of how much I'm willing to pay.

Oddly enough, I handle my preferences (such as they are) for politicians running for office in much the same way. I require certain things of them before they can have my vote, among them a healthy respect for the First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments in particular. If they also want my active support, they need to do even better than that. For that, they'll need to actually respect the entire Constitution Bill of Rights (which does save me a bundle in campaign contributions and volunteer time, if nothing else). The "want" items for politicians include an antipathy toward the United Nations and a commitment to lower and then repeal taxes. And the bottom line? Don't fulfill those needs, or promise those wants and don't deliver, not only will you not get my vote, but I'll actively work against your campaign.

Under usual circumstances, the vast majority of politicians have made it abundantly clear that they don't really care what any of us think of them. They make and break promises without a thought; they ignore pleas for assistance; they bend over backward for those things that will do the most for them rather than those that will offer the best for their constituents. But every couple of years, they start to care what we think. They start to care a whole lot.

In used car terms, the time that salesmen start to care is near the end of the month. There are quotas to be met and sales records to be surpassed. And woe to the salesman that doesn't meet or beat his goals! You can get deals at the end of the month that thirty days earlier would have been unthinkable.

Under similar circumstances, we can likely get politicians to make all sorts of deals with us right about now. But unlike signing on the dotted line at a car dealership and driving away in your brand new (at least to you) car, politicians get a sort of two-year (or four-year or six-year) some-hundred-odd-thousand-mile reverse warranty during which time they seem to believe they can break down almost at will because, after all, they're covered thanks to their term of office.

As I kept looking for a new car, I saw something else that seems to be quite a bit like politics in action, and that's the fact that the salesman often seemed to know what I wanted better than I knew what I wanted. "Small," it said on my "needs" list. "Automatic transmission," it said. I was also insisting on relatively low mileage, a fairly recent model year, and had a strong preference for four-wheel drive. And yet one salesman steered me directly to a 1997 Jeep with almost 90,000 miles on it, and another walked me over to a pair of small pick-up trucks, both of which were quite lovely except for that thingie with the black ball on the end of it sticking up from the floorboards that I think you have to move around some way or another if you want to actually go anywhere. I think. And oh, yes. They were both two-wheel drive models to boot.

Politicians are treating me—and just about everybody else—much the same way those car salesmen did. I apparently don't know what I really want. I am, instead, called "the American people," and in virtually every speech given by virtually every politician these days, I'm informed that "the American people want," and "the American people think" whether this American person wants that or thinks so or not. Perhaps much as the typical salesman thinks, politicians are convinced that, if they tell us what we want long enough, we'll actually start wanting it.

I can't tell you how many weekends I spent looking for a car this time around (well, I could get close, but I don't remember exactly when I started because it was some time ago). It took awhile to get the "needs" list met. Like I said, my current car was working fine. I was in no rush! And then I found the perfect vehicle. It met all of the "needs," and even a number of the "wants." And when I told the salesman my bottom line, he nodded and told me he didn't think we were really very far apart at all. So we went into his office and sat down to chat. He scribbled some numbers on a piece of paper, scratched his cheek once or twice, and then slid the paper over to me with his bottom line figure written on it.

I learned something new that afternoon. I learned that a nearly three thousand dollar difference is, apparently, "not very far apart." (I also learned that if you stand up and walk away when you're given such a number, the salesman is more than anxious to wheel and deal a little more.) In the end, I walked out for good because the bottom lines stayed too far apart for me to consider.

Politicians, by the same token, are happy to talk with you during election season. They're there to serve you, they say, and they're always happy to listen to your concerns because your concerns are their concerns. But get your own piece of paper sometime with that politician's bottom line noted on it. Review your politician's voting records. And when you see for a fact that you're very far apart indeed, do what I did: walk out. Well, figuratively, anyway. And show them that you've left the building by telling them so.

But don't give up! Keep looking for what you need and want. It could be that there's another candidate out there that matches your own demands just perfectly and will even offer a few little perks for your consideration. It could also be that the original candidate, when he sees another "sale" leaving the room, might rethink or at least restate his positions (maybe not—but I'd be willing to bet you whatever you'd like that seeing enough "sales" walking out of the voting booth would convince him).

I waited until the end of the month before I went back to check out that perfect (except for the price) vehicle again. They still had the car, and you know what? I presented an even lower bottom line because I wasn't happy that I had to spend another few weeks looking and then had to go back to that dealership and argue some more. They took the deal. I got the car, and I got what I wanted and more for the dollar figure I was willing to pay. It took significant time and more effort than I would have wished (not to mention some relatively convoluted networking with friends of friends), but I'm quite pleased with the end result.

The same kind of end-of-the-month desperation can be seen in political warrooms everywhere when statistics show a race is being lost or is, at least, being harder fought than comfortable. Take advantage of that weakness while you can because it only comes along at certain times and under certain conditions. And if you don't get the deal you want, don't buy! Used car salesman are supposed to sell us the car we want; politicians are supposed to do the job we hire them for. Just as you wouldn't buy a vehicle you don't like no matter the salesman's high pressure tactics, why would you rehire an employee that you think ought to be fired? Are you worried the person replacing him will be even more incompetant? Fire him, too. Or maybe think about hiring the guy in the background, the one that's far better qualified but doesn't have years of experience or a designer interview suit...

If you buy a car you didn't want, you have no one to blame but yourself. If you're not happy with your elected officials, despite the fact it's them not doing the job that's making you unhappy, that's your fault, too (well, more fairly, it's the fault of the collective group that voted for him last time around). So take charge. Educate yourself. Educate your friends and family. Don't fall for sales gimmicks on either the used car lot or in the voting booth!

By the way, I really like my new car. But, like most states, mine has what's called a "lemon law." That means that, if this vehicle turns out to be a "lemon," I've got recourse to make the dealer make good on everything. Given all the other things politicians and used car salesmen have in common, I'm thinking it might be a fine idea to consider a "lemon law" for politicians. After the elections, if they don't work right, why wait? Either fix 'em, or replace 'em and move on.

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