Friday, February 20, 2009

The lure of free stuff

I had a rather lengthy email from an old friend who has lived in Paris for over thirty years, responding to my comments about socialism. The bulk of her letter was a catalog of the many benefits she enjoys living in the socialistic economy of France, including cheap medical services (which she characterized as 'decent') and other fruits of direct government subsidies and regulation of the private sector. Yes, their taxes are high, she admits, but they cannot be fired from their jobs, and their film industry is subsidized, and dentistry, though it remains primitive, is cheap, and so the benefits are well worth the confiscation.

Now I have learned over the years that it is very difficult to argue with people who are getting free stuff. They are used to their free - or almost free - stuff, want to keep what they have, and hope to obtain more of it. What they miss are the general principles, awash as they are in artificially inexpensive goods and services, the allure of which is irresistible, and it is simply not possible to reason them out of their sense of entitlement.

When my friend boasts that due to France's official humanitarianism she can visit the gynecologist for fourteen dollars, she misses two important points. First: the services of the gynecologist cost far more than fourteen dollars, and so someone else has to make up the difference (no free stuff is, in fact, free). That someone else is, of course, everyone else. And how do the others undertake this burden? They are taxed at a confiscatory rate by a government that gives them no choice but to pay, and will punish them if they try to resist. Further, this government confiscates (read: steals) the wealth that individuals produce, and redistributes it according to its own definition of fairness. As I have said elsewhere here, fairness is a child's pipe dream, which, among adults, becomes an excuse for doing things like punishing hard-working, successful people so that a hard core of guilt-ridden, socially minded ideologues can feel better about themselves. ('I support "free health care" for all, and so, I must be a compassionate human being!') But what about compassion for the people who struggle to get a good education, spend years working tirelessly, build some personal wealth to give their families a prosperous life and their children a better chance at life, only to have an ideologically-driven bureaucracy strip from them the produce of their sacrifice and labor in the name of some socialist ideal of economic justice?

But the second and larger point is this: It is simply morally untenable for any government to confiscate the fruit of people's labor and give it away to whomever they deem deserving. No government has, or should have, that right. That is a corruption of state power, a dangerous intrusion into the lives of citizens against which the Founding Fathers warned us time and again. Look at the Bill of Rights: It is worded negatively. It does not confer rights on citizens, since the Founders knew that was neither the role nor the prerogative of government; rather, it is a carefully phrased limitation on the powers of government for the sake of individual liberty. Congress shall make NO law restricting the rights of speech, assembly, religion and so on, through a catalog of prohibitions aimed not at the individual, but at the greatest threat ever posed to the rights of the individual - government.

Now, my friend argues that health care is a 'human right' if ever there was one. Her argument runs that health care is a right and that government can give it to you, and therefore government can give you rights. This is simply wrong. Health care is a necessity, not a right; there is an important difference. That people need access to health care does not mean that governments ought to use their power to take what some produce so as to give health services to others. As I said, this is morally, and ideationally, wrong. I could just as easily argue (indeed, anyone could) that food is a greater necessity than health care - no one would have health at all without good food - and so access to food is a 'human right.' This, in turn, by my friend's logic, means that governments ought forcibly to confiscate and redistribute wealth so as to provide everyone with equal access to 'decent' food. Clothing is also a necessity, especially in cold climates like Paris and Minnesota, and so should not government confiscate wealth and distribute clothing? All people need shelter, so, should not the government provide me with a house? It is virtually impossible to earn a living, or buy clothes or food or anything else for that matter in Southern California without a car. Should I demand that government provide me with a Chevy at the expense of strangers? Should I cede more and more of my work, my wealth, my liberty to government in exchange for that which I need?

The answer is an emphatic no. I repeat what I have said elsewhere here: Government cannot give you rights, it can only take them away. That is what the Founders understood, and that is why they created this form of capitalist democracy: not to protect wealth, but to ensure the liberty of its citizens. And how did they ensure it? By limiting to the greatest extent possible the power of government. The great lie which we face politically now (and to which the French and my friend have succumbed) is the argument that since health care is a right and government can give it to you, then it must be true that government can give you rights. This directly violates the spirit in which this country was created, because it violates the spirit in which man was created. By that I mean that, in the Founders' view, rights come only from a single source: God. But since my friend, and so many others on the left, do not believe in God, then they must look elsewhere for the source of rights, finding it in government. Government thus replaces God in the lives of men, and so, by extension, government ought to have as much power as possible to improve the lives of men. And that is a terrible and destructive lie.

The general point is the one that Lincoln enunciated 150 years ago: Government should do NOTHING that the people can do better for themselves. And with regard to fairness, or economic justice, Hamlet settled that question 400 years ago: 'Give every man according to his desserts, and who shall 'scape whipping?'

I continue to believe that socialism is inimical to the health of the human spirit. Confiscate the fruit of citizens' labor, deny them access to the wealth they have created, and distribute it to others based on a perception of their need, and you destroy the initiative both to create wealth and to improve oneself. Make it impossible for people to fail, and you make it unlikely that they will excel. Why should people try, why should they struggle and sacrifice and improve themselves if, on the one hand, the government guarantees them a 'decent' quality of life from cradle to grave no matter what they do or fail to do, and on the other, if the product of their hard work, sacrifice and creativity is going to be stolen from them by bureaucrats and ideologues who believe that they know better how their money should be spent? Reward under-achievement and under-achievement you shall have. Create dependency and, though you may win elections, you will lose the vibrancy and creativity of individual ambition. Remove the possibility of failure (and the motivation it engenders), and you make success impossible.

My friend closed her letter with a quote from the late Russian writer Solzhenitsyn to the effect that people have the obligation to resist lies. Yet she was apparently unaware of the fact that the single greatest lie about which Solzhenitsyn warned us was socialism. Here are three arguments against which he (and Jefferson and Franklin and Lincoln) would have railed:

1. Health care is a right, and government can give it to us. (This is a lie.)
2. Government has the right to confiscate the wealth I create for myself and my family and give it to others according to some idea of fairness. (This is a lie.)
3. People's lives are made better by making them dependent on government. (This is a lie.)

Where did the idea come from that government is and ought to be a vast dispenser of human necessities? Who conceived the notion that the state ought to decide how resources should be allocated, and use its power to steal from some and give to others? The answer is: the creators of socialism. And though their ideas have proved to be a failure virtually everywhere they have been tried, the lure of free stuff keeps them alive as if on some horrid artificial life support machine.

Solzhenitsyn, like Dostoevsky before him, knew the dangers of what Dostoevsky called 'the ant hill' of socialist society, in which all men labor for the state just as ants labor blindly in their swarms for the ant colony. Now, I am not saying that France as it is presently constituted is an ant colony, but my friend does not seem to realize that every euro she pays to the government in taxes to prop up the fourteen dollar gynecologist visit represents time she has spent laboring for the government. And the more taxes she pays, the more labor she has devoted to the state. The ant hill may not yet have appeared in France (though it did in Russia until even the ants rebelled), but the mound is growing, and it is being assembled from the purloined labor, creativity and liberty of the ants.

One final observation: For generations now, those who wished a better life for themselves and their children, and who found it impossible to achieve this in their homelands precisely because of the tyranny of governments that believed they knew better than individuals how people should live, how wealth should be distributed, and what constituted fairness and economic justice (all of which were the kinds of lies Solzhenitsyn was referring to), had one hope left to them: America. They came here to escape the elitist thinking and high-handed behavior of those who have no faith in the creativity of the individual and every confidence in the power of government. In other words, they came here, often at peril to their lives, to be free - free to fulfill their dreams (even at the risk of failure), free to create wealth and use it to make a better world, free to be themselves without infernal and continual interference from those political and economic theorists who, as soon as they attain power, become tyrants, thieves and worse. They came here for what Jack Kennedy called 'the last, best hope of mankind.' At least in the past they had that alternative. But now, with the irresistible lure of 'free stuff' taking hold more and more in the psyches of Americans, where will such people go in the future if America becomes another France, as the leftists here so fervently desire?

There will be no place to go - no place to risk everything in the hope of having something of one's own, no place to carve out a dream with one's own hands, no place to take the chance of failing miserably in the hope of succeeding miraculously. Instead of dreams, we will have fourteen dollar doctor visits; we will have traded the sacred value of individual liberty for the phony socialist ploy of collective fairness, which holds that free stuff exists and that you can have it if only you pay for it with your soul.