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Fending Off Government

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President Clinton’s State of the Union address had two basic messages: 1) the era of big government is over, and 2) we can’t go back to the time when “people fended for themselves.”

He doesn’t really mean the era of big government is over. He’s up for reelection. His wife (I assume this is not merely guilt by conjugal association) likes to say: “It takes a village [translation: the state] to raise a child” and “There’s no such thing as someone else’s children.” A picture of small government doesn’t flash on my mental screen when I chew over those touching words.

But let’s take the president’s statements at face value. What could he possibly mean? The juxtaposing of the two points implies that big government was established so that people wouldn’t have to fend for themselves. He now offers to creatively find ways to do without big government while still making it unnecessary for people to fend.

What about that word fend ? Have you ever fended? Clinton undoubtedly has in mind the second definition given in the American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition : “to attempt to manage without assistance.” The word fend also suggests that favorite phrase of capitalism’s enemies, “the survival of the fittest.” The two are related — and equally fallacious.

If to fend is to attempt to manage without assistance, then it has little to do with what the real opponents of big government want. After all, government isn’t the only source of assistance. People like Clinton imagine that the unfettered marketplace is where people have to fend for themselves. In fact, the marketplace is characterized by the division of labor: You make shoes, I’ll make bread, and we’ll trade. Does that sound like fending for one’s self? It sounds more like assistance and cooperation. But what about the anticapitalist’s worst bogey — competition? Competition is entailed by cooperation. It is what you get when we’re free to decide with whom we will cooperate.

Since man is a social animal, I’ll bet there never was a time when individuals fended for themselves. They always lived in groups and cooperated through exchange. The conjured-up era of fending is simply part of the anticapitalist folklore designed to make us fear liberty and look to the state for protection. That’s what Clinton was counting on in his speech.

It is true, of course, that in a free society, someone needing assistance can’t compel others to come to his rescue. So, Clinton was also implying that even if the size of government is reduced, he guarantees that forced assistance will be preserved. Too bad he didn’t put it in those terms. As Bastiat said, the state is that fiction by which everyone lives at everyone else’s expense. Euphemism conceals much.

Despite what Clinton may wish to imply, it was capitalism that systematically reduced the need for charitable assistance. Capitalism didn’t invent poverty, Ayn Rand once said. Instead, it inherited it — and then proceeded to eradicate it. Eradicate it? Don’t we still have poor people? It depends on your definition. If poverty is defined in absolute terms, then capitalism banished poverty. No one in the United States (or other semicapitalist societies) is poor in the way everyone (including royalty) in the 18th century was poor. The “poor” in America today are wealthier than the middle class was in 1960. The “poor” here have household appliances such as VCRs, clothes dryers, and microwave ovens in larger proportion than do the general populations of most Western European countries. The cost of food for two hundred years has been a shrinking percentage of household budgets. Where freedom is permitted even part way, real poverty is a thing of the past.

But that is not how people use the term. They use it relatively. A discussion of relative poverty is as uninteresting as it is misleading. As long as there is a range of incomes (and since people are different, there always will be), there will be a bottom 20 percent, a top 20 percent, and three quintiles in between. Big deal! If the bottom 20 percent becomes richer each year than the year before, should it matter how it compares to the top 20 percent? Should it even matter if the gap between the rich and “poor” is growing if the “poor” are getting richer all the time? Only envy would motivate an affirmative answer.

Income analysis is tricky. The wealth represented by the top 20 percent could grow and that of the bottom could remain stable while everyone was getting richer . How? You can move out of the bottom, but once you’re at the top, you can’t get any higher. The growth of the bottom level is limited by the fact that when a member of that group gets to a certain level of wealth, he moves into the second-from-bottom level. But if you are in the top and keep getting richer, there’s nowhere else to go!

This assumes that simplistic income analysis is even informative. It is not, because it treats those groups as though they were static collections of people. It is easy to forget that people move in and out of the various compartments all the time. What sense does it make to be preoccupied with such groups when the members are constantly changing?

The profile of the people in those various levels sheds light on why incomes differ. The higher income levels tend to be filled with more older people than the lower levels. Older people, by definition, have had more time to accumulate wealth than younger people. They also have more work experience. It is certainly no sign of inequity that older people tend to be richer than younger people. But that’s what the egalitarians imply by their simplistic income analysis.

While advocates of freedom should point out the misuses of statistics, I would caution that we should not even suggest that a huge gap between “rich” and “poor” is a sign of inequity. In a free society, incomes are the result of voluntary exchange. As Robert Nozick wrote in Anarchy, State and Utopia , if the process leading to a given “distribution” of income is just (meaning voluntary), then the “distribution” is just. The outcome of the process gets its moral character from the process, not vice versa.

Let’s now look at the phrase, “the survival of the fittest.” How ironic. In 1800, the earth could barely support a billion people. Life expectancy was not much more than 30 years. Today, more than five and a half billion people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. As Julian Simon has so eloquently shown, material welfare in every category — from food production per capita to leisure time — is booming. (See the new book Simon has edited, The State of Humanity .) In fact, we are allegedly suffering from overpopulation. The growth in our numbers does not come from women having more children than before. It comes from increasing longevity. In most places, the death rate (the number of deaths per thousand of population in a given year) is steadily falling. Infant mortality is plummeting. Simon calls it man’s triumph over death. If under capitalism only the fit survive, it seems to have a knack for making people fit. But that’s not what capitalism’s enemies have in mind.

Ludwig von Mises remarked that capitalism has been blamed for every real and imagined human problem — even when the problems are offsetting. For example, it was said that capitalism destroyed the family by recognizing the right of women to own property and work. It was also said that it created the family’s oppressive patriarchy over women. To Mises’s list we can add that capitalism both forced us to fend for ourselves and enabled us to become richer and healthier to the point where (as some people see it) we risk crowding ourselves to death. Oh yes, and as a newly published book argues, capitalism’s production of chemicals is responsible for falling sperm counts. I suppose if global warming can cause record snowstorms, falling sperm counts can cause overpopulation. That’s how it works in the dizzy world of anticapitalism.

The contradictory complaints about capitalism are a sign that the objection to freedom is not really related to any of the alleged problems. What the anticapitalists really don’t like is that freedom lets people select and pursue their own life courses. From time immemorial, the critics of freedom have thought that people were obliged to serve purposes other than self-chosen ones — the tribe, the class, the nation, the common good, the new world order — anything but what they might choose for themselves. That’s why anticapitalists, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, don’t like capitalism.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.