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The Trouble with Liberals

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The trouble with liberals is twofold: They have a horrible blind spot with respect to moral principles and they have an abysmal understanding of economic principles. Of course, I’m referring to “liberals” in the corrupted “big-government” sense of the term rather than in the classical libertarian meaning of the word.

We begin with a basic moral principle: It’s wrong to take what doesn’t belong to you. This principle, of course, is codified in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not steal,” which connotes a way of life based on privately owned property. It is a violation of God’s law for a person to take the property of another person without his consent.

Most liberals have no difficulty understanding that basic moral injunction against stealing. Their problem arises when they begin thinking about the role of government in society. That’s where their moral blind spot enters the picture. The liberal mindset is that, while it’s immoral for one person to take another person’s property against the will of the owner, the same act is automatically converted into a moral deed when it is done by the government.

Consider the following example. Suppose I hold a gun to a liberal and force him to extract $10,000 from his bank account. I explain to him that the money is for my elderly widowed mother, who has no savings. As soon as I get to my mother’s home, I give all of the money to her, and she plans to use it for food, rent, and clothing in the year ahead.

How would the liberal respond? He would cry, “Thief!” and immediately call the cops. In his mind, I would have been committing an immoral act — stealing — because I don’t have the right to take what doesn’t belong to me, not even to assist my mother.

Let’s assume though that instead of robbing the liberal, I travel to Washington, D.C., to visit my congressman and senators. After placing a few bricks of $1,000 donations from well-heeled friends and supporters on their desk, I ask them to enact a law that entitles me (and others) to take money from liberals (and others) to assist my destitute mother (and other elderly people) with living expenses. The law is passed, the IRS begins collecting the money, and the Social Security Administration sends a $10,000 check to my mother.

For the liberal, this changes everything. What the government has done is now considered moral. Moreover, it reflects not only my goodness but also the goodness of everyone else who lives in American society, including those who don’t even vote. In the liberal mindset, the government becomes the engine of moral transformation, converting what would ordinarily be a thief into a caring and compassionate benefactor of society.

That’s in fact why liberals oftentimes sympathize with Cuba’s president, Fidel Castro. While Castro’s violations of civil liberties make liberals uncomfortable, his use of government to take from the rich to give to the poor pulls on liberal heartstrings.

In fact, the socialist economic system that Castro implemented in Cuba is the logical extension of liberal principles. For example, soon after Castro took office, the Cuban government took possession and ownership of large mansions in which rich people were living. Castro let the poor move into them. The government did the same thing with large farms and companies, redistributing them to the poor.

Obviously, Castro was a very popular man, not among those whose property was being taken from them but among those who were gaining the benefits of the booty.

Of course, Castro took everything from the rich, while American liberals favor taking only a certain percentage from the rich and giving it to the poor. But isn’t that only a difference in degree, not in principle?
Ignorance of economic principles

The Cuba situation brings us to the other trouble with liberals — their abysmal ignorance of economic principles. Liberals don’t realize that the tax-and-welfare role they favor for government hurts the very people they presumably want to help — those at the bottom of the economic ladder. That’s why they limit their blame for the horrible economic plight of the Cuban people to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, totally ignoring the adverse effects of Castro’s socialist economic policies.

Imagine that 10,000 penniless people were suddenly stranded on a deserted island, with no chance of being rescued. What should they do to survive? A liberal would say, “Immediately enact a welfare state, so that the poor don’t starve to death.”

They fail to see the fundamental fallacy in their reasoning: the welfare state presupposes wealth to confiscate. If there is no wealth, there is nothing to confiscate and, therefore, no welfare to distribute. In order to have a welfare state, wealth must first come into existence. Thus, the only reason that Castro was able to confiscate those houses, farms, and businesses is that they had already come into existence for him to confiscate.

Thus, liberals always ask the wrong economic question. They ask, “What are the causes of poverty?” when the right question is, “What are the causes of wealth?”
The lesson of Thanksgiving

The history of Thanksgiving in the United States can provide a valuable lesson for liberals. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and began planting their crops, Gov. William Bradford implemented a type of “share the wealth” system favored by liberals. Everyone was required to deposit his crops into a common pool, whereupon the government would have the responsibility of distributing the proceeds on the basis of relative need.

The result? The same result we see in places like Cuba and Africa, whose societies are based on that same “share the wealth” principle — abject poverty, even famine and starvation.

After a few years of harsh privation and starvation, Governor Bradford issued a new decree changing the colony’s economic system. From that day forward, every family would keep its own crop proceeds and would not be forced to share them with others. It was a system based on private property and free enterprise.

The result? Bounty and plenty! No more famines or starvation! Moreover, people noticed an unusual phenomenon: When families had the right to keep everything they earned, members of the family worked harder and longer than they had been working when living under welfare-state conditions.

Thus, it was Plymouth Rock’s implementation of a private-property system that was the genesis of the first Thanksgiving.
The Industrial Revolution

Jumping ahead in U.S. history, liberals love to point to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. They implicitly claim that American parents living during that time were guilty of horrible child abuse because they forced their children to work long hours in “sweatshops.” The accusation is based on liberals’ abysmal ignorance of both history and economic principles.

When considering the 1800s, it’s important to compare that century not with the 20th century but rather with the centuries that preceded it. During the preceding eras, life and living standards were horrible. The average life span was in the early 20s, which is one reason that many people got married in their early teens. It is impossible to describe adequately how nasty life was in terms of living standards, especially considering the quality of the food, clothing, water, sewage facilities, medicine, and transportation. The child mortality rate was so high that most couples would have many children, knowing that only a few would make it to adulthood.

Along came the American people and established the most unusual society in history: No income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, economic regulations, immigration controls, or welfare. For the first time in history, people were free to open up businesses without government permission or interference. They were free to keep everything they earned and to decide what to do with it. Charity was entirely voluntary.

The result? The most prosperous — and the most charitable — society in history, despite what liberals claim. Parents didn’t send their children into the factories because they hated them but rather because this was the only way to save them. The Industrial Revolution, while harsh, gave parents the chance to save children who otherwise would likely have met an early death.

Families gradually began accumulating the capital savings that provided them with increasing financial stability. Thus, it wasn’t laws that took children out of the factories but rather the increased financial ability of families to keep children — and later wives — out of the factories.

Moreover, it was the enormous pool of productive capital — savings — that financed the production of better machinery and tools, which made workers more productive, which in turn raised real wage rates. It was capital — not government — that was the foundation of the soaring standard of living of the American people in the late 1800s and into the 1900s.

It was that pool of enormous wealth that attracted the socialists — the welfare-statists — the liberals. Seeing all the wealth that an unhampered market economy had brought into existence was too much for them. Permitting envy and covetousness to take control of their mindsets, their quest became to use government to confiscate the wealth and redistribute it. What they failed to comprehend was that as they confiscated capital, they were dooming the very people they were claiming to help to lower standards of living.
The regulated economy

Unfortunately, liberals didn’t stop with welfare-statism. They also turned to economic regulations, not understanding that such interventions, again, harmed the very people they were supposedly trying to help — the poor and destitute.

Consider, for example, minimum-wage laws, which every liberal absolutely adores. Keep in mind that minimum-wage laws don’t require anyone to hire anyone else. They simply say that if a person does choose to hire someone, he must pay the legally established minimum to his employee.

Let’s say that Congress sets the minimum wage at $100 per hour. Liberals would say, “Yes, that would be great! Finally, everyone would be wealthy!” They’re wrong. It would doom millions of people to poverty. Why? No one whose labor is valued by prospective employers at less than $100 per hour would be hired. That large group of people would remain unemployed. How would they survive? You guessed it: By the government’s confiscating wealth from the citizenry (including business owners) and giving welfare to the unemployed.

“Okay,” the liberal might respond, “then the mistake would be in setting the minimum wage at $100 an hour. Let’s change it to $5 an hour.” The principle is no different. All that has changed is the number of people who are unemployed. That is, all the people whose labor is valued at $5 to $100, who previously were unemployed because of the $100 minimum-wage law, will now be able to find jobs. But those whose labor is valued at less than $5 an hour will remain unemployed.

Liberals have never been able to understand that the results of government programs are not determined by good intentions but rather by economic principles.

Vetoing a welfare bill to assist drought-stricken Texas farmers, Democratic President Grover Cleveland in 1887 expressed the philosophy of the American people when he declared, “Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.” Too bad modern-day liberals, with their moral blind spot and their lack of economic understanding, have led our nation in the opposite direction.

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.