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No Winners in Politics

Tags Corporate WelfareTaxes and SpendingPolitical Theory

08/23/2000Gene Callahan

In a recent edition of his syndicated column, George Will berated Colin Powell's GOP convention speech for comparing affirmative action to lobbying for tax loopholes and other forms of corporate welfare. Said Will: "[Powell spoke] as though there is no moral distinction between the normal, if sometimes tawdry, bartering of favors among factions that is a universal transaction cost of democracy, and the allocation of entitlements based on race."

Well, Mr. Will, who even knew that democracy was a transaction? But I was puzzled by Will's statement on a deeper level as well. Once we accept that government has a legitimate role in divvying out economic favors among its citizens, on what basis do we make a moral distinction that declares some favors "normal if tawdry" and others just plain unacceptable? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, for many people, it is precisely those interventions that will favor their interests that they will declare normal, and those from which they don't feel that they can benefit that they will regard as being beyond the pale.

Our governments, at all levels, repeatedly intervene in the economy to favor the interests of some citizens at the expense of others. Import barriers favor autoworkers at the expense of consumers of cars. Farm price supports favor farmers at the expense of everyone else who eats. Minimum wage laws favor skilled workers at the expense of unskilled workers.

The people who support such measures often argue that they are motivated by more than economics. "Our skilled factory workers are the pride of America," they say. "The family farm is the backbone of this country." These things, they claim, are worth supporting even if they lose money.

Notice that many of these goals might be achieved through purely voluntary means. Those who believe in supporting the American farm could, for instance, form a buyers' cooperative to buy American farm products, even if they are more expensive. The problem with this, from the point of view of those who are promoting these agendas, is that then they would have to pay the entire cost for things that they want. They would much rather have you pay at least part of the cost, as well.

When someone says, "An issue as important as this shouldn't be decided on merely economic grounds," the best thing to do is watch your wallet. What they really mean is that they hope you don't think too much about the economics of this issue, because they are preparing to use the threat of state violence to get you to pay for something that they want.

Free-market economists do not, contrary to the popular canard, believe that everything should be decided in terms of dollars and cents, monetary profit and loss. Economists merely point out that we do choose, and that every choice involves both costs and benefits. An unhampered market economy does not demand that participants always choose what is most profitable in terms of monetary gain. It does, however, require that those making a choice accept the consequences -- if they wish to gain the benefits possible from a choice, they also reconcile themselves to the costs entailed by so choosing.

As an illustration of the difference between choices in an unhampered market and under the existing spoils system, let us imagine the town of Bachsville. Bachsville has 100 adults living in it. Fifty-one of them love the music of the old master, J.S. Bach. The other 49 are indifferent to it.

The 51 who love Bach organize a "Bach Society," and sponsor a yearly Bach festival in town. Since ticket sales don't cover the full costs, these Bach lovers cover the difference through society dues.

However, one day, it occurs to the Bach lovers that they are spending more than they must. After all, they are a majority in the town! They conduct a referendum as to whether the town should cover the costs of the Bach festival that are not covered by the ticket costs. The referendum passes, 51-49.

What these people have done is to use the threat of government violence to mug their fellow citizens. They have a personal preference for hearing live performances of Bach in their town, and they have figured out a way to force those who do not share in this preference to pony up anyway.

Of course, they can't describe what they have done in quite such bald terms. Instead, they will spout platitudes. "Music stirs the human soul," they will say. "The community can be improved through the promotion of shared values." "The people in a community have the right to shape what sort of community they wish to live in."

Who could argue with any of these points? But none of them speak to the issue at hand. "Music stirs the human soul, so therefore I can use the threat of violence to force you to pay for some music I like," is a more accurate statement of their position.. Or: "The community can be improved through the promotion of shared values, and I intend to promote my values by extracting some money from you." Or: "The people in a community have the right to shape what sort of community they wish to live in, and the right to squeeze money out of anyone who wasn't aware that they had moved to a Bachophile town."

The above in no way prevents people from setting up a planned community with its own rules and regulations. If people moving in know in advance that the purpose of the town is to promote the music of Bach, they can freely decide whether this is what they want. People can create "intentional communities" devoted to communal life, to gerbil care, to spouse-swapping -- whatever. No lover of liberty could object to such plans, even if he might regard some of them as foolish. After all, what is liberty but the right to try things that others consider foolish?

What is objectionable is the post facto nature of so many of these restrictions on property rights. I move to a town and buy an old dump, intending to tear it down and put up my modernist masterpiece. However, before I get a chance to do so, the town designates my block a "historical preservation district," and bans the demolition of any structures. Now the property may be nearly worthless to me. I have been robbed by democratic vote.

Of course, in the long run, the joke is on those who feel they will gain by these tactics. While they may be in the most powerful lobby on one issue, they will surely lose on others. We all wind up employing government to mug each other, again and again, never noticing that it is only the mugger, who keeps pulling a percentage off of the top, who gains in the end.

So, Mr. Will, I'm afraid I really don't see the great moral distinction you mention. If government is a tool for us to extract money from our unwilling fellow citizens, why shouldn't each of us cobble together whatever lobby will get us our biggest share? If it's "normal" for farmers to demand that their occupation be subsidized and giant corporations to have their overseas marketing paid for partly by the rest of us, why shouldn't blacks form a lobby to get their share as well?

Of course, General Powell is wrong as well, for surely, for the future of our country, the solution is not for everyone to jump in this game in whatever fashion they can, but, rather, to stop the game.


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