Economic Lessons Everywhere
Traveling through Europe on a recent family vacation provided a number of situations that bring the ideals of Liberty, Freedom, and Property to light.
1. Pictures at the Eiffel Tower
Despite what is taught in public schools, individuals looking out for their own satisfactions will coordinate their means in a mutually beneficial manner. For many, visiting the Eiffel Tower is a once in a lifetime pleasure. The expense in getting there is indeed great, thus the desire for lasting images is also great. However, the crowds that stand on top of the tower move about so that everyone is able to take the pictures that will trigger memories for years to come. A moment or two standing in a spot providing a great backdrop, followed by the snap or click of a camera, and the photographer and subject step aside for the next visitor.
You might think that this graceful dance would require a government choreographer, yet that is not the case. The visitors easily move about to allow everyone the picture of a lifetime, graciously in fact. Indeed, other visitors are happy to take a picture for you. Man does not need government in order to satisfy desired ends, even in a world of scarcity.
2. Fear of the official
Certainly, I should have known better. But, how can anyone know every law, rule, and regulation? Just miles from the Italian border and apparent freedom, Swiss police stopped me for not having an autobahn tax sticker on the windshield of the car I was renting. That I rented the car in Paris did not satisfy the policeman. I had to pay the €70 fine; cash only.
This incident shows why people instinctively fear the government official. Even if you are truly conscientious, there is no way to know all of the millions of laws that are on the books. Each of us intuitively knows that we are guilty of some offense, no matter how silly. Whether it's blowing a whistle while riding a bike in Ohio, or traveling the Swiss highways without the proper sticker, we are all guilty of some offense, somewhere. And, it's the arbitrary application of the whims of officials that gets you every time.
3. Punching tickets in Cinque Terra
Cinque Terra is an area on the west coast of Italy comprised of five fishing villages that had been isolated from the interior for centuries. In fact, the first road connecting these villages with other cities and towns is only 50 years old. Due to their isolation and connection to the sea, the residents were proud, strong, and insular. Yet in a very short time, government has all but destroyed that character.
As tourists found Cinque Terra, the economy changed. The need to satisfy visitors has replaced the need for fish, resulting in an immigration of outsiders who are familiar with running hotels, shops, and restaurants. No longer do the boats venture into the waters of the Mediterranean. Instead, the descendents of the proud and independent are working make-work jobs that provide no real value to the economy. The town leaders, seeking to keep existing constituents from leaving the area for productive jobs elsewhere, employ residents in typical governmental style.
Now you have a situation where you buy a ticket for the cliff-hanging walkway between villages from one individual, turn to have it stamped by another, and then take a step to have the ticket reviewed by two more. You can be assured that each of these government employees is provided a government-decreed fair wage, though a wage not tied to their discounted marginal value product. A proud population of fishermen reduced to simple tax consumers. A sad situation indeed.
4. Zoning as a political hammer
Whether in the United States or in Italy, zoning is a hammer used to gain favors for elected officials. Because of zoning, it takes a property owner, a hotelier in this case, 18 months to obtain approval to post a small sign — on his own property nonetheless. You see, he is new to Cinque Terra, and the powers-that-be want to frustrate newcomers, especially those perceived as stealing jobs from the existing population. Just as in the United States, the politicians and bureaucrats have a host of means to slow or stop progress through the arbitrary application of zoning rules.
What is sold as a benefit to the community is actually theft from one group of residents in order to benefit the group of residents who grasp the elbows of those in power. And, in the end, the community — an artificial aggregation of people based on an arbitrary political line on a map — suffers, as improvements to the area go wanting due to investor fear of the political hammer that is zoning.
5. Who feeds Rome?
Driving the streets of Rome is a nightmare for the first time visitor. The streets are chaotic and crowded. Yet, every morning I ate a wonderful, fresh breakfast. You see, regardless of the obstacles, entrepreneurs will adjust their lives to satisfy consumer wants. If providing fresh bread means that the baker has to rise very early in order to account for delivery time in this crazy town, he will do so. His lack of sleep is never my concern. I simply want my bread served fresh at 8:00 in the morning. And, it's my wants that determine his lifestyle.
6. So, who will take out the garbage?
The streets and sidewalks of Rome are a mess, strewn with garbage and cigarette butts. Refuse containers exist at intervals, overflowing with remnants of consumer goods and producer waste. The occasional city employee sweeps the streets while the waste department empties the trashcans. But the sweepers simply move trash from side to side while the garbage men watch bags fall from cans, never to grace the compactor in the back of their truck. In both cases, the civil employees give no notice to the remaining garbage lying about; obviously cleaning sidewalks and streets is not in their job descriptions.
So, are the citizens of Rome dirty folks? Not if you consider the clean floors and shelves of the stores that line the trash-filled streets. This simple observation shows that private ownership provides a much better environment.
7. Children and the State
Social security is one of the biggest lies coming from the state. Such programs are supposed to provide for the old-age needs of citizens, without parents having to burden their children. But the state produces nothing. The severing of the timeless bond between parent and child can never occur. In order to fund such programs, the state steals the wealth of future generations — the children — in order to provide social security for the current generation — the parents.
The state's grandiose lie will be exposed as European countries continue to experience reduced birthrates and shrinking workforces. But it may be too late. The current fertile population of Europe has fallen for the belief that children are an expense, not an investment. Why assume the expense for additional children when the state will provide all? The answer to that question will be evident in a decade or so, as European economies collapse under the weight of obligations without a sufficient workforce.
8. Playing politics
Watching the presidential debates from afar allowed me the opportunity to reflect on what has to be the most inane comment coming from any politician. Time and time again, you will hear one candidate accuse another of "playing politics" with any number of issues; the war in Iraq being the most frequent subject. Yet politics is the only game that politicians play. Note to candidates and viewers: everything discussed and debated is political, regardless of the rhetoric.
9. The real chaos: Can't THEY get along?
While I was able to navigate the sites in Paris and the streets in Rome, the TV showed the true breed of chaotic species: the politician.
The level of rancor and bile is evident even when you do not understand the language. Certainly, I beeped my horn and got hot once or twice while driving, but my actions were nothing compared to the infantile ones displayed by those holding or seeking political power.
Moreover, all my actions went toward satisfying true wants and desires, even while respecting the property rights of others. This is quite different from the means employed by the political elite in order to satisfy the ends sought by those wanting the property of others.
10. The end of an empire
The remains of the Roman Forum, Coliseum, and the palaces of Palatine Hill, are proof that empires fall, despite the wonders created by the political class in attempts to placate the masses. In addition, these sites show that every empire needs a war for victories, and enemies for threats. Sadly, we have not learned these lessons.
As our political class prides itself on past, current, and future exploits, the masses pay for monuments that will one day tumble into the mud. Hubris is one human attribute that never goes wanting, and it increases with power and prestige. Wars and carnivals, or guns and butter, destroy the capital needed to keep society progressing. Either we learn our lessons from the Romans or we will be the archeological site of a subsequent generation.
Trading Liberty, Freedom, and Property for a marble obelisk that will not weather the storms of the ages is no inheritance for our children, or our children's children.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.