The Poison in Our Polity

Forgive me as I borrow that insipidly unoriginal question that journalists ask athletes after a championship game -- "How do you feel?" -- as I ask you: how would you feel if you knew that your neighbors were going to enter your house while you had been out and take some of your valuables?

It's an unsettling thought, isn't it?  The vast majority of us -- Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative -- would feel that our rights had been violated.  What rights?  Our property rights, obviously.

If such behavior were common, would there be social harmony?  If we regarded our neighbors as predators, wouldn't good will and friendship give way to distrust, resentment, and anger?  It would be ugly.

Now observe our polity today -- the vitriolic tone of our political discourse and the seething passions that stir up such distrust, resentment, and anger (yes, even hatred) during election years.  The primary reason for today's widespread political rancor and discord is that we have descended into a dog-eat-dog, predatory society in which one knows that he is surrounded by citizens plotting to grab some of his property.

The federal government spends more than $3.5 trillion per year.  On what?  The bulk of federal spending is for transfers of wealth from Citizens A, B, and C (some of them current taxpayers, some the taxpayers of the future) to Citizens J, K, and L through Z.  When government redistributes trillions of dollars per year, nobody's property is sacrosanct.

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) lucidly diagnosed this political pathology long ago when he dubbed it "legal plunder."  He found it inconsistent that we would condemn neighbors who steal some of our property in person, yet tolerate a government that would take some of our property to give it to those same neighbors.  Does forcibly changing ownership of property become morally defensible if government does the dirty work for us?  Is the involuntary redistribution of wealth sanctified if a majority of congressmen vote for it?  Bastiat and the American founders would answer emphatically and unequivocally: No!

By converting government from being the guardian of our property rights to the principal agent for abrogating those rights, we have perverted the purpose of government and unleashed a political free-for-all that, if unchecked and not reversed, will lead to economic impoverishment and societal decay (Exhibit A: see Detroit). Our political degeneration may even culminate in tyrannical modes of government.

Today's demoralized politics has become a nasty, savage squabble over who gets what.  Thought leaders, such as educators and journalists, have been telling anyone who will listen that people are entitled to have certain things.  No wonder many (most?) Americans feel justified in having the government take property from others to give it to them.  And if those whose property is under siege protest the taking of their assets -- if they dare try to protect their property from plunder -- then those individuals are vilified and demonized as atavistic, antisocial, morally inferior creatures unworthy of respect, meriting contempt and condemnation.

Some of our clergy, too, have contributed to the poisoning of our polity by injecting the venom of envy into susceptible minds.  Thus, President Obama can say, with a straight face, to a gathering of Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast that raising taxes is consistent with Jesus' teaching "for unto whom much is given, much shall be required."

The president grossly misused this conclusion of Jesus' parable of the talents.  The parable teaches that God (not government) is the giver of life and talents, and that one owes it to God (not government) to make productive use of His gifts.  The fact that some Americans have earned fortunes indicates that they have already rendered abundant service to their fellow man -- that is, that the much required of them has already been paid by virtue of talented, hardworking individuals having created abundant value for their fellow man.  The fact that the president can apparently twist the gospels without eliciting howls of protest from clergy is a telling (and worrisome) phenomenon.

The toxic discord that surrounds us today stems from the debased politics of using government to redistribute private property rather than protect and preserve it.  Look at the conduct of some of the Occupy Wall Street movement or the behavior of some of the public union people in Madison last winter.  We are not far, in our polity and our public finances, from the kind of irrational mob violence currently plaguing Greece (I say irrational, because to demand that government hand out wealth that isn't there can hardly be deemed rational.).

The only antidote for the deadly poison of disrespect for private property that infects our body politic is a moral and intellectual revival whereby we regain our respect for our neighbor's property.  The alternative is bankruptcy and chaos.

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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