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Stealing Our Words

August 8, 2001

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In a much-missed series of columns for the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Professor Walter Block mused about the hijacking of honest English words by "the forces of socialism, statism . . . and political correctness," rendering them unfit for use by those outside this camp.

Third-Way leaders in particular, like Gerhard Schroeder, Tony Blair, and Jean Chretien, can always be counted on for perverted prolix, not least of which is to insist that everything associated with their policies is "progressive." Vigilance about co-opted semantics is vital, considering that language mediates thoughts, actions, and hence public debate and policy.

An especially nasty misnomer is "progressive taxation." I'm aware that it denotes, not progressivity in the sense of forward and onward moving, but rather a scheme in the spirit of the communist credo, "from each according to his ability, to each according to their need." The more you earn, the more you forfeit. But progressives piggyback on the double entendre of this combo. "Progressive taxation" has a benevolent connotation. It sounds like a good thing.

It masks that in as much as taxation—any taxation—is a confiscation of the property of citizens through force and without consent, it is criminal. In as much as it advocates taking from some more than from others, and thus fails to treat individuals equally under the law, "progressive taxation" is criminally inequitable. Inasmuch as it penalizes the most productive members of society, placing disincentives in their path and preventing them from creating wealth, "progressive taxation" is plainly asinine.

To enter the moral penumbra of government is to inhabit the world of a bandit who is above the criminal law. To this habitual—and legally immune—burglar, the superiority of a "progressive tax" scheme is more than apparent. If the object is to cram the getaway car to its fullest capacity, then, sure: hit on the mansion; don't shake down the shack. If the object is to sustain power through appeasing the majority, then, as George Bernard Shaw put it, "a government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul."

While I am on botched locution, how does "redistributive justice" grab you? If ever there was a contradiction in terms, this is it. How do you distribute justly that which has been seized unjustly? And to whom is left the definition of just—to those who steal? Perhaps, you may posit, we ought to look beyond the immoral act of "legalized plunder." Perhaps robbing Peter to pay Paul is a noble end if Paul is in dire need. If this "band of brigands" called government fulfills a duty of beneficence, you say, let's turn a blind eye to the path of political predation it travels.

On purely utilitarian grounds, I'm afraid, we come up empty-handed. When a private charity like the Salvation Army collects for the poor, almost all of its funds reach their target. However, little of the wealth appropriated by the Welfare State actually reaches the needy, going instead toward the funding of a metastasizing bureaucracy. The typical Western social democracy now spends on the federal, state, and local levels, approximately 50 percent of the national income. Most of the booty goes for administration.

Indeed, for an entity that impoverishes in its own right, the "Welfare State" is curiously named. It does not promote the well-being of its inhabitants. The opposite is true: Its policies are to their detriment. Consider a form of price control such as minimum wage laws. These create poverty by creating unemployment among the poor and unskilled. Fixing the price of labor above the market rate or the productivity of the employee as the minimum wage does causes surpluses of labor. The jobs would exist had government not legislated them out of the reach of those who need them.

When it turns to control prices of electricity, medical services, and housing units, as in the case of rent control, the State sets prices below market value, causing rampant overuse. Without fail, endemic shortages and a scarcity of the resource ensue. Witness New York, where there are apparently as many boarded-up buildings as there are homeless. Government has, very plainly, reduced incentives to supply low-cost rental housing.

With its tariffs, quotas, and international and interprovincial barriers to trade, the Welfare State weighs on the average consumer, filching his money and handing it over to protected industries and sectional interests. It also further pauperizes undeveloped nations by denying them their comparative advantage in our markets. And I have yet to touch on the fact that by vetoing our choice of whom we patronize with our trade, the above interventions violate the constitutional right to freedom of association. Clearly, not only does it fail to do what it purports to do, the Welfare State is antithetical to all but the well-being of bureaucrats and politicians.

"Liberal" is another word that has been junked. Having originally denoted the classical liberalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to be a liberal now is to be a social democrat. Perhaps the largest counterfeit perpetrated by the crypto-socialistic, cum-fascistic liberal is to have transformed the meaning of rights. A liberal in the classical sense would reject the laundry list of rights that forms the bedrock of the contemporary social democracy. He would recognize only the right of a limited government to prevent the violation of life, liberty, and property. People must be protected from being murdered, robbed, raped, cheated, stolen from. Hence, the term "negative rights."

A positive right, the list of which is still under construction, is defined by Harvard scholar Richard Pipes as "the right to the necessities of life at public expense, i.e., the right to something that was not one's own." Housing, food, education, health care, child benefits, emotional well-being, enriching employment, ad infintum, are positive, and hence bogus, rights. A need or a desire is not a human right.

All rights create obligations: my right to life means you must not kill me; my right to liberty means you must not enslave me. Negative rights do not infringe on another person's rights. My right to be free doesn't diminish your right to the same liberty. This is why these are genuine human rights.

Not so the newly minted positive rights. If I have a right to food, someone must work to feed me; if I have a right to meaningful employment, someone must sponsor my dream job. A so-called right that violates someone else's right to be free of enslavement is no right at all.

Positive rights, above all, are a means through which the State can control people. Recognize the right to a guaranteed income, for instance, and you also recognize the right of a central planner to enslave some and garnish the property of others to fulfill this need, while simultaneously buying votes.

The bureaucrat knows full well that for his survival, he depends on the surplus wealth created by individuals. Without it, he would self-destruct much like the parasite that kills its host. The mission of our "progressives" thus might not quite jibe with Karl Marx's dream of abolishing private property. But a redefinition of property is certainly in the cards. While redefinition begins with words, reclaiming lost linguistic territory will not turn the tide. Where freedom is at stake, only a change of mind will do.


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