When you think of Forbes you should think of sex

February 08, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Is democracy like sex? Surely not. If it were, more people would vote.

However, Professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School uses that question as the title of his article in the Vanderbilt Law Review and answers the question in the affirmative. Although Mr. Reynolds wrote before Steve Forbes lighted up the firmament, his reasoning illuminates Forbesism, the ideology.

In biology as in the body politic, parasites are a problem. What sex does in the former -- enhances resistance to parasites -- democracy does in the latter.

Professor Reynolds uses the noun ''sex'' to denote not the interesting personal experience but to denote sexual as opposed to asexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction is ''the process of reproducing by intermingling the genes of two individuals to produce a third unique individual possessing some attribute from each parent in a combination that is new.''

There is much to be said for asexual methods of reproduction, such as fission or budding. There is less fuss -- no tiresome search for a mate, involving courtship and compromise and PTC occasionally combat. There are no sexually transmitted diseases. And the result is not just a chip off the old block, it is the old block, again and again. A sexual reproduction passes along 100 percent of the reproducing organisms' genes.

But that is a problem. An organism that reproduces asexually -- that clones itself -- does not produce what the professor calls a ''moving target'' for viruses, bacteria and more complex

parasites. The supposed inefficiency of sexual reproduction -- the fact that it produces unpredictable outcomes -- is a virtue. The churning of the genes produces variety, which makes it hard for parasites to adapt. Sexual reproduction, by creating diversity in the host population, combats parasites by making it difficult for them to become too well-adapted to their hosts.

What has all this to do with democracy and the publisher who would be president? Democratic decision-making, which is often irrational and chaotic, churns the political class, making government a moving target for the social parasites that economists call rent-seekers. They are people who try to prosper not by being productive but by taking from others, by being politically powerful enough to get government to redistribute wealth to their advantage. Rent-seekers try to get government to confer on them profitable advantages, such as tax breaks, or to impose on competitors disadvantages, such as regulations.

Hence the affinity between Forbesism and sexual reproduction. Mr. Forbes' principal proposals -- term limits and a flat tax -- are anti-parasite measures. The former scrambles the cohort of decision-makers that is the parasites' target. The latter takes out of political play one important instrument -- the tax code -- by which parasitism is rewarded.

Mr. Reynolds considers term limits unnecessary because ''the basic structure'' that the Constitution gives the government is .. ''anti-parasitic.'' But his argument actually is that the structure was anti-parasitic until it was overthrown by two developments.

Incentives for lobbying

One was the Supreme Court's permissive reading of the Commerce Clause, a reading which dissolved the doctrine of enumerated powers, abolishing virtually all limits on federal authority other than those limits in the Bill of Rights. As federal activities have increased, the incentives for lobbying the federal government have increased.

The second development injurious to the government's anti-parasitic structure is the court's permissiveness about the delegation of lawmaking power by Congress to nonlegislators. Because Congress is trying to do more than it has time to do, and because it likes to duck difficult decisions, it likes to delegate decision-making to administrative agencies run by unelected bureaucrats, with whom the parasite class can cultivate long-term relations undisturbed by democracy's turbulence.

Mr. Reynolds has a point. Term limits would be less necessary if Congress were confined to exercising constitutionally enumerated powers and were it restrained from delegating promiscuously. But neither of those desirable developments is probable.

And the professor neglects an often-neglected argument for term limits. It is that limits are Madisonian, surgical and hard-headed: They remove a single motive for seeking elective office and for making decisions while in elective office. The motive is careerism. The desire for a long career in office is what makes elected officials receptive to transactions with parasites.

This argument for term limits is not the populist argument about making government more ''responsive.'' Rather, it is an argument for making government more deliberative by making it less responsive, and for making it less responsive by making elected decision-makers ineligible for what grateful rent-seekers can help the decision-makers pursue -- longevity in office.

Still, Professor Reynolds' argument, properly read, does demonstrate why when you think of Steve Forbes you should think of sex.

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George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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