You’d think a little humility would have been in order. Asked to speak to a gathering of CEOs of some of the nation’s most successful companies, Vice President Al Gore, who makes his living spending money people have no choice but to give him, lectured them about the need to make their employees happy. I’m sure Microsoft boss Bill Gates, who hosted the meeting, learned a lot.
Mr. Gore, of course, is in politics precisely because he thinks he knows more than the rest of us and shouldn’t have to put his ideas to the profit-and-loss test those CEOs face every day.
It is instructive to see what Mr. Gore chose to say to the august gathering. He alluded to “The Wizard of Oz,” rejecting both scarecrows and tin men. Scarecrows are those brainless people who fear free trade and immigration. Here he’s on firm ground. I just wonder why he isn’t urging his boss to remove the restrictions on those things.
The tin men are brainy but “rusty,” he said. They want to cut taxes and get government out of the way, Mr. Gore said, but they don’t know the importance of improving their workers’ skills or exploiting the power of government.
“Some people may benefit from the heartless policies of the tin men,” he said. “But many would not and some would suffer. That is morally unacceptable.”
This has to be a joke. The more you analyze that statement the more absurd it is. To begin with, any employer who doesn’t see the value of making his workers more productive will be taught a rather obvious lesson by his competitors. Unlike Mr. Gore’s employer, firms can go out of business. The CEOs certainly do not need sanctimony from the vice president. You’d think that no employers figured this out before they heard it from a politician whose business resume would fit on a match book with lots of room to spare.
Is it heartless to get government out of the way? Government is, and has always been, the greatest enemy of productivity imaginable. It has squandered untold resources and opportunities from the productive sector of society. It has imposed irrational mandates on business. It has stigmatized businessmen as greedy gougers not to be trusted. And on top of all that, it has diverted energy from economic entrepreneurship to political entrepreneurship, of which Mr. Gore apparently approves. In other words, instead of looking for new ways to make the lives of consumers better, too many people are lobbying the government for favors.
And just how will people suffer from those heartless policies of letting people keep their own money? Mr. Gore displays the arrogance of ignorance. It was in the era of capitalism, when government interference was at its lowest ebb in history, that living standards rose for everyone in society. Poverty, in absolute terms, plummeted in the West following the Industrial Revolution. The population grew as more and more people lived longer, healthier lives. When we talk about poverty today we are using the term in a relative sense — say, the bottom 20 percent of incomes. You’re much better off being “poor” in America than poor in the former Zaire. You’re much better off being poor in 1997 than in 1950. It has nothing to do with government. On the contrary, government poverty programs have made people more dependent.
So, Mr. Gore, don’t lecture America’s producers about having a heart. It’s not heart that raises living standards for the poorest Americans. It’s the pursuit of profit in a regime of liberty.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gore did not take the Oz analogy far enough. You’ll recall the scene in the movie when, as the wizard is thundering and bellowing about his power, little Toto has pulls aside a curtain, revealing a little man manipulating levers and wheels to create the sound and fury signifying nothing. The man was a humbug, a fraud who pretended he could do great things, but who really just intimidated people.
Washington is our Oz. Politicians such as Mr. Gore are our wizards.