XXVII. THE GOVERNMENT AND THE MARKET
6. Direct Government Interference with Consumption
In investigating the economic problems of interventionism we do not have to deal with those actions of the government whose aim it is to influence immediately the consumer's choice of consumers' goods. Every act of government interference with business must indirectly affect consumption. As the government's interference alters the market data, it must also alter the valuations and the conduct of the consumers. But if the aim of the government is merely to force the consumers directly to consume goods other than what they would have consumed in the absence of the government's decree, no special problems emerge to be scrutinized by economics. It is beyond doubt that a strong and ruthless police apparatus has the power to enforce such decrees.
In dealing with the choices of the consumers we do not ask what motives induced a man to buy a and not to buy b; they depend only on the real acts of buying and abstention from buying. It is immaterial for the determination of the prices of gas masks whether people buy them of their own accord or because the government forces everybody [p. 733] to have a gas mask. What alone counts is the size of the demand.
Governments which are eager to keep up the outward appearance of freedom even when curtailing freedom disguise their direct interference with consumption under the cloak of interference with business. The aim of American prohibition was to prevent the individual residents of the country from drinking alcoholic beverages. But the law hypocritically did not make drinking as such illegal and did not penalize it. It merely prohibited the manufacture, the sale and the transportation of intoxicating liquors, the business transactions which precede the act of drinking. The idea was that people indulge in the vice of drinking only because unscrupulous businessmen prevail upon them. It was, however, manifest that the objective of prohibition was to encroach upon the individuals' freedom to spend their dollars and to enjoy their lives according to their own fashion. The restrictions imposed upon business were only subservient to this ultimate end.
The problems involved in direct government interference with consumption are not catallactic problems. They go far beyond the scope of catallactics and concern the fundamental issues of human life and social organization. If it is true that government derives its authority from God and is entrusted by Providence to act as the guardian of the ignorant and stupid populace, then it is certainly its task to regiment every aspect of the subject's conduct. The God-sent ruler knows better what is good for his wards than they do themselves. It is his duty to guard them against the harm they would inflict upon themselves if left alone.
Self-styled "realistic" people fail to recognize the immense importance of the principles implied. They contend that they do not want to deal with the matter from what, they say, is a philosophic and academic point of view. Their approach is, they argue, exclusively guided by practical considerations. It is a fact, they say, that some people harm themselves and their innocent families by consuming narcotic drugs. Only doctrinaires could be so dogmatic as to object to the government's regulation of the drug traffic. Its beneficent effects cannot be contested.
However, the case is not so simple as that. Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. A good case could be made out in favor of the prohibition of alcohol and nicotine. And why limit the government's benevolent providence to the protection of the individual's [p. 734] body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.
These fears are not merely imaginary specters terrifying secluded doctrinaires. It is a fact that no paternal government, whether ancient or modern, ever shrank from regimenting its subjects' minds, beliefs, and opinions. If one abolishes man's freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away. The naive advocates of government interference with consumption delude themselves when they neglect what they disdainfully call the philosophical aspect of the problem. They unwittingly support the case of censorship, inquisition, religious intolerance, and the persecution of dissenters.
In dealing with the catallactics of interventionism we do not discuss these political consequences of direct government interference with the citizens' consumption. We are exclusively concerned with those acts of interference which aim at forcing the entrepreneurs and capitalists to employ the factors of production in a way different from what they would have done if they merely obeyed the dictates of the market. In doing this, we do not raise the question of whether such interference is good or bad from any preconceived point of view. We merely ask whether or not it can attain those ends which those advocating and resorting to it are trying to attain.
An analysis of interventionism would be incomplete if it were not to refer to the phenomenon of corruption.
There are hardly any acts of government interference with the market process that, seen from the point of view of the citizens concerned, would not have to be qualified either as confiscations or as gifts. As a rule, one individual or a group of individuals is enriched at the expense of other individuals or groups of individuals. But in many cases, the harm done to some people does not correspond to any advantage for other people.
There is no such thing as a just and fair method of exercising the tremendous power that interventionism puts into the hands of the legislature and the executive. The advocates of interventionism pretend to substitute for the --as they assert, "socially" detrimental--effects of private property and vested interests the unlimited discretion of the [p. 735] perfectly wise and disinterested legislator and his conscientious and indefatigable servants, the bureaucrats. In their eyes the common man is a helpless infant, badly in need of a paternal guardian to protect him against the sly tricks of a band of rogues. They reject all traditional notions of law and legality in the name of a "higher and nobler" idea of justice. Whatever they themselves do is always right because it hurts those who selfishly want to retain for themselves what, from the point of view of this higher concept of justice, ought to belong to others.
The notions of selfishness and unselfishness as employed in such reasoning are self-contradictory and vain. As has been pointed out, every action aims at the attainment of a state of affairs that suits the actor better than the state that would prevail in the absence of this action. In this sense every action is to be qualified as selfish. The man who gives alms to hungry children does it, either because he values his own satisfaction expected from this gift higher than any other satisfaction he could buy by spending this amount of money, or because he hopes to be rewarded in the beyond. The politician is, in this sense, always selfish no matter whether he supports a popular program in order to get an office or whether he firmly clings to his own--unpopular--convictions and thus deprives himself of the benefits he could reap by betraying them.
In the terminology of anticapitalism the words selfish and unselfish are used to classify people from the point of view of a doctrine that considers equality of wealth and income as the only natural and fair state of social conditions, that brands those who own or earn more than the average as exploiters, and that condemns entrepreneurial activities as detrimental to the common weal. To be in business, to depend directly on the approval or disapproval of one's actions by the consumers, to woo the patronage of the buyers, and to earn profit if one succeeds in satisfying them better than one's competitors do is, from the point of view of officialdom's ideology, selfish and shameful. Only those on the government's payroll are rated as unselfish and noble.
Unfortunately the office-holders and their staffs are not angelic. They learn very soon that their decisions mean for the businessmen either considerable losses or--sometimes--considerable gains. Certainly there are also bureaucrats who do not take bribes; but there are others who are anxious to take advantage of any "safe" opportunity of "sharing" with those whom their decisions favor.
In many fields of the administration of interventionist measures, favoritism simply cannot be avoided. Take, for example, the case of export or import licenses. Such a license has for the licensee a definite cash value. To whom ought the government grant a license and to whom should it be denied? There is no neutral or objective yardstick available to make the decision free from bias and favoritism. Whether [p. 736] or not money changes hands in the affair does not matter. The scandal is the same when the license is given to people who have rendered or are expected to render other kinds of valuable services (e.g., in casting their votes) to the people upon whom the decision depends.
Corruption is a regular effect of interventionism. It may be left to the historians and to the lawyers to deal with the problems involved. [p. 737]