In times gone by the ability of individuals to improve their lives and the lives of those around them depended on largesse, often conferred by royalty. Patents and monopolies were the product of royal favor, and there were prohibitions against anyone aside from the chosen few entering into certain trades. Improving one’s standard of living was not a matter of hard work, thrift and good sense — it was a question of social rank. This arrangement has been referred to as a “society of status.”
With the liberalization of the societies of western Europe, more specifically Great Britain, and with the founding of the United States, the notion that an elite few were endowed with some exclusive claim to the pursuit of happiness fell into the dustbin of history. What emerged was a “society of contract.”
This meant that each individual would be free to make the best of his situation, whatever that might be. He could trade with those around him, agreeing only to those terms that he believed would benefit him. He enjoyed the fruits of his labor and wise choices; he suffered the consequences of his indolence and foolishness.
To be sure, there were inconsistencies. For example, until ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, the freedom of contract (among many other freedoms) was denied to millions of slaves. After that, Jim Crow laws in the Southern states still interfered with the rights of free association and freedom of contract.
But for the majority of people in this country the choice of occupation, working conditions, wages, and benefits, were matters to be worked out between individuals acting in their sovereign capacity, without interference or obstruction. The role of government in this relationship was largely confined to preventing obstructions and punishing fraud — violations of contract.
The result was quite impressive. Left to make their own choices, free people built the wealthiest country with the highest general living standard ever seen in the history of the world. Certainly, none of us would wish to work under the conditions or accept the wages typical of a farmer or factory worker in the 19th century, but it is thanks to the wealth and abundance accumulated during that period that we can now enjoy a prosperity hitherto unheard of, anywhere, ever — and this is thanks to the freedom of past generations.
We take that for granted today. There is a lot of talk of “haves” and “have-nots,” usually from people making their complaint on a cell phone, driving a car to or from a house that most nobles would have envied in times past. Climate control keeps us warm in winter and cool in summer. Even something as simple as a screen on a window can be overlooked — because of the flies we don’t see crawling on the abundance of food on our tables. Tennis courts, painting classes, fitness centers, Internet access, ski resorts, cabins in the woods — all represent an incredible amount of leisure that just a century ago was only available to the privileged few.
But these things still have to be paid for. Wealth comes at a price, and that price is production. We must provide goods or services that we can then trade for the goods and services offered by others. If we are free to make trade-offs that we believe will benefit us, and those with whom we deal are likewise free to so choose, the result is a win-win. Everyone benefits.
But without work, the machine stops — and so do all the goodies.
Admittedly, there is an alternative: we can be parasites, living off the production of others. Yet this still demonstrates that production is indispensable to the maintenance and improvement of our standard of living.
In short, the only way to keep production going is for people to work.
Increasingly, this relationship is being eroded by an entitlement mentality, one that sees goods and services as a right to be provided by others. While it is understood that someone must work, there is no expectation that any particular individual should be required to work in order to have the things that he wants. It doesn’t seem parasitic when the parasite can claim the property of others by right. Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, free or subsidized housing, birth control, even free cell phones — all are examples of a welfare-state mentality that sees productive activity as something done by others. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, said even “computer literacy” was a “civil right.”
Moreover, for those who do choose to work, there is no expectation that each person will be responsible for negotiating the terms of trade. The business of searching for the best opportunity has been usurped by politicians and delegated to bureaucrats, with the result being that we no longer enter into employment as equals with our employer — each side making a trade-off, giving up something of lesser value in exchange for something of greater value. Instead, such things as wages, benefits, working hours, and workplace conditions are determined by government agents. Minimum-wage laws, OSHA requirements, unemployment “insurance,” Medicare withholding — all are examples of government undermining the right of each of us to act in our sovereign capacity, for our own benefit. The dignity of the individual is replaced by paternalism, and the result is an increasingly infantilized society.
Freedom of contract has been replaced by the new largesse. It’s not the largesse of old, where royalty bestowed privilege on the few by denying freedom to the many. The new largesse is the “freedom” to avoid responsibility for ourselves.
Strangely, many raise the specter of slavery to discredit the history and benefits of freedom of contract. We’re told that without government welfare we would all be living on the streets, deprived of health care, decent food, and housing. Without government regulators, we would be at the mercy of employers who would subject us to unsafe workplace conditions, slave wages, and backbreaking labor. This position fails to acknowledge the monumental, unprecedented wealth and prosperity enjoyed by virtually everyone today because of the freedom of contract enjoyed by past generations. The essence of slavery is the denial of this freedom.
The French queen Marie Antoinette is said to have proclaimed, “Let them eat cake!” Her words, echoing down through the ages, embody the callous disregard of the powerful for the life and well-being of their subordinates. The ideal of the United States was a rejection of all such power, and an embrace of the right of each individual to pursue happiness to the best of his ability — without interference from a “more enlightened” class.