THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 395, November 26, 2006
"The other parties are afraid to talk about the future.
We are the future."
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
I was at a high school ceremony, at which my daughter and several dozen other students were honored, one evening this past week. One of the student speakers touched briefly on the ideal of leadership, and asserted that leadership was necessary, for many people would be lost and rudderless without some guiding hand.
After the ceremony, I was speaking with the mother of one of my daughter's friends, and mentioned my distaste concerning that particular idea. This woman, who is a staunch left-liberal, wondered why I would have a problem with that, since the evidence of people that need to be lead is everywhere. Not wanting to create too much of a scene, for which I would suffer later, I suggested a few books for her to read (one of which is The Road to Serfdom by Hayek) to gain a better perspective on why letting government apparatchiks "lead" us is a bad idea. She is one of those people that still think that government can work if only we can get better people in government service and make things more efficient. I didn't even bother to opine to her that we should thank (whatever) that we don't get all the government we pay for. She wouldn't have understood me anyway.
But this brings me back to the recurring theme of people (on the "right" as much as the "left") who ignore empirical evidence of many decades, even centuries, that government is not our friend. It is seldom that any one entity, person or corporation gets to be "Paul" all the time. Sooner or later, you are forced to be "Peter." And sometimes you get Petered good and hard, if you catch my drift.
However, through the magic of tax withholding, most people seem to have no idea how much the government is Petering them. Nor do they understand how much the hundreds of thousands of government regulations bleed them almost as much. And most of them think that corporate income taxes are a good idea, making sure they "pay their fair share." This is another of the great mysteries of our current condition: how can people be so ignorant of economics and the world around them that they don't realize that if the government places a more-or-less uniform burden upon businesses, said businesses will pass that cost along to the consumers! We all know that shit flows downhill, and that money talks. This point is easily as obvious, so why is it that people seem oblivious to it?
My feeling is that, in a society where the people in the government have their nasty little hands into nearly everything, people begin to think that winners and losers are selected by those in government, or maybe just plain luck. They talk about income distribution, as if your pay was given to you rather than earned. (Well, in some cases, like workers at the Social Security Administration a few miles from my home, it is given to them. But I digress.) People know, for the most part, that government bureaucrats place restrictions on many of their activities, including economic ones. And most suspect that the restrictions are not applied evenly or consistently, thus favoring some over others. Often, those in government attempt to pick "winners" and "losers" in the economy, almost always with bad results and unintended consequences.
But most people suffer under the delusion that life should be "fair." So if the government regulators are favoring some over others, we should petition the government to redress the balance and make things fair. If corporations have more money than we do, that's not fair. Those profits should be taxed. If they pay little or no taxes, they should be made to pay their fair share. The concept of cutting off your nose to spite your face seems appropriate here. We can't have all Pauls; some people have to play Peter.
But why do people think things should be fair? Because the people running the government, and government schools, tell them so. In government schools, all the kids have to take the same test (No Child Left Behind). All kids who break arbitrary and often silly rules will be punished equally, ignoring the circumstances of the situation (Zero Tolerance, and don't get me started on that). All those in a given class will be taught the subject matter at the same pace in the same manner (government-educational theory). Most parents at least pay lip-service to the concept of treating their children fairly, of not playing favorites. (Full disclosure: I'm a first-born only son. I benefited from favoritism, even though it didn't seem like it at the time.)
So people grow up expecting fairness. And the politicians continue the charade, telling potential voters that, after their election, they will smite the bad and lift up the good, and all will be fair and equal. Yeah, and I'm gonna fly by flapping my arms.
But with so many roadblocks in the way of economic and entrepreneurial activity, many people feel as if someone owes them something. It isn't fair that I don't make as much as my neighbor, or co-worker or object of envy. So government "leaders" have to distribute income by taking from the "lucky" ones, or those favored by one policy or another, and giving it to the "less fortunate."
Now, some of the less fortunate really have had bad luck. But some of them have made bad choices, whether it was choosing a career in a dying industry, not getting enough education (as opposed to government schooling), not managing their money well, or whatever. Just as a small percentage have been inordinately lucky, without other positive attributes, and become well off or even wealthy, others have had the opposite experience. That's life, sometimes. The great majority of us have had success in direct proportion to our inputs into life. (Yes, some inputs have to do with good genes or influential families. But neither is a guarantee of success. Making responsible, informed choices, getting married and staying married, seem to be more positively correlated with financial success than most anything else.)
So what are we to do to correct this misperception? Aside from getting people weaned from the government teat, I think that one area to concentrate on is the idea that we are all just members of groups, or that we are more "actualized" as a member of a group, rather than as an individual. I still find myself grouping people, despite two decades of being a libertarian and reminding myself that we are all individuals, not Republicans, Democrats, socialists, or other group pejoratives. Although I might be willing to make an exception for politicians. If more people think as individuals, and think of others as individuals, I believe that more will understand that responsibility and individual or cooperative (as opposed to coerced) effort will gain them more than group identity politics in the long run. Then, maybe every Tom, Dick and Harry won't want to be Paul, and we can give our Peters a rest.