February 6, 2010
Our National Blind Spot
Nobody will dispute the fact that there are differences between private and public behavior. We can all think of things that we do privately that we would never consider doing in public.
This holds true in politics, too. Specifically, the vast majority of Americans would never dream of stealing from another person, yet they have no compunction about wanting government to take property from some citizens to give it to others.
Friends with whom we would entrust the keys to our house and all our worldly goods are often enthusiastic supporters of government programs that redistribute wealth. Few of us would imagine that a Washington lobbyist would peek out his window at home, wait for his neighbors to leave, and then sneak into their houses to take their possessions. The very image is absurd. And yet, those same lobbyists spend their working hours trying to persuade politicians to grant favors to them and send the bill to someone else.
Decades ago, the oldest free-market think tank, The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., published Lewis Love's short parable, "A King of Long Ago." In the story, an artisan, a mason, and a lame beggar petition their king for aid. The artisan can't attract enough customers to meet his sales goals, the mason isn't getting hired very often, and the beggar isn't receiving sufficient alms.
They implore the king to correct this unsatisfactory state of affairs. The king commands that each petitioner be given a sword. He then authorizes the three to "go forth in the land and compel those who will not voluntarily deal with them to obey their command."
"No! No!" the three men demur. "We are men of honor and could not set upon our fellow man to compel him to our will. This we cannot do. It is you, O King, who must use the power."
"You ask me to do that which you would not do because of honor?" questioned the king. "I, too, am an honorable man, and that which is dishonorable for you will never be less dishonorable for your king."
Besides illustrating the ideal of the rule of law -- in which everyone, regardless of wealth, rank, and position, is equally constrained from infringing the rights of others -- this little parable shows the inconsistency of believing that private citizens should respect private property, but government leaders need not. Is that which is personally immoral politically moral?
What causes otherwise-honest people to condone the political plunder and redistribution of personal property? Immorality? That's too harsh for my taste. I prefer to say that there is a blind spot in their thinking.
Maybe what we're dealing with is mob psychology. Perhaps it's rationalization. "It's for a worthy cause," we tell ourselves, oblivious to the fact that the Eighth Commandment doesn't say "Thou shalt not steal ... except by majority vote or unless it's for the poor."
Perhaps the explanation for this blind spot is self-delusion. We see nothing wrong with receiving benefits from the state. What we remain blissfully unconscious of is that the state has nothing to give us but what it takes from our fellow citizens. Indeed, Bastiat called the state "the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." It is a dream, a myth, and a fiction to believe that government gives you wealth out of its own productive bounty. Governments don't produce wealth; they only take it and redistribute it, substituting the political judgment of the few (the governing elite) for the economic verdict of everyone (a genuinely democratic process) acting in free markets.
Many reason that democracy somehow sanctifies and legitimates the forcible redistribution of wealth. For them, democracy sanitizes and civilizes the process of taking someone's honestly earned property. They don't perceive this as robbery.
But if this isn't robbery, then what is it? If the state's would-be victims resist being plundered, the state will retaliate by confiscating even more of their property and/or incarcerating them. The democratic process rests on force and the implied threat of force every step of the way.
We don't bat an eye anymore when someone glibly proposes "spreading the wealth." In fact, many Americans enjoy spreading the wealth, as long as it isn't their own. In a recent survey, three out of four Americans agreed that Obama and Congress should raises taxes on that minority of Americans with annual incomes above $200,000. Apparently, most Americans believe that Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and their minions have more of a right to spend those dollars than the citizens who earned them.
If you think this line of thought is crazy, then let me ask you a question: What percentage of a person's honest income should he or she be allowed to keep? The only guidelines I am aware of are "all of it" (the original American way, since income taxes were unconstitutional until 1913) or nothing beyond what anybody else (except the governing elite) can keep, according to the communist principle "from each according to his ability to each according to his need."
Between those two polar extremes, any percentage one chooses would be arbitrary. In practice, the degree to which property is redistributed depends on whatever shifting political coalition has enough votes -- enough power -- at any given moment. Stripped of grandiose pretenses and specious idealism, contemporary political life has descended into a constant, contentious squabble to see who gets what at the expense of whom.
Somehow, we're going to have to find a way to correct this ethical blind spot if we ever hope to avoid national bankruptcy and to live in greater harmony than we do today.
Mark Hendrickson teaches economics at Grove City College and is Fellow for Economic & Social Policy at the College's Center for Vision & Values.