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Vice President Chutzpah

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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.

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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.