Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why the government should not help the disadvantaged

Author's note: My views have changed substantially since the publication of this post.  Take what follows with a grain of salt.

For much of US History, rich, white, straight Christian males were in control of the nation. Under their rule, the country did a lot of good, and also a lot of bad. In recent decades, progressives have rightly called America out for all the bad it has done, and all the people it's government abused over the prior 200 years. This was fair and needed criticism, as it is important that we remain conscious of our mistakes, fix them, and learn from them. But an unfortunate side effect of this criticism is that it has publicly justified anybody who is not a rich, white, straight, Christian male in claiming that they are a victim in some way of those who are. Not only that, but it has made it socially and politically acceptable for these people to demand special perks to compensate them for their perceived victimization; a little push, a handicap, a closer tee at the golf course, if you will.

The reasons one might be designated as disadvantaged vary tremendously. You could be black, Latino, middle eastern, southeast Asian, native American, mulatto, or some combination. You could be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, hermaphrodite, or simply female. You could be poor, or even just middle class. You could be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or another minority religion. You could be a non-native English speaker. Handicapped, stupid, fat, bald, it could be anything. Liberal politicians have created an atmosphere in which they're willing to sympathize with just about any complaint.

But even in the event that the "victim" is part of a group that actually was harmed by the government, this is absurd. If one individual or group is harmed by another, we have an (allegedly) fair and just system of identifying who did wrong to whom, punishing the offender and compensating the victim: the criminal justice system. But if ancestors were harmed - if perhaps your great great grandparents were victimized - that does not entitle you to compensation.

It is impossible to "settle the score" for every injustice which has ever been conducted in the history of mankind. Attempting to do so would only cause greater injustice, because no living human can fairly be held responsible for wrongdoings which occurred before their birth! Should the Catholic Church make modern day Catholics pay the Moors for the damages inflicted during the Inquisition? Should Germany tax its citizens to pay for donations to every Jew in Europe? Should the US government give the territory we stole in the Mexican-American war back to Mexico? Certainly, these were wrongdoings. But ceding New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and half of California back to Mexican control today would not correct that injustice. It would not help the individuals who were actually harmed by our imperialism 150 years ago. Rather, it would only cause more injustice to the modern-day residents of those states.

It is for this same reason the Palestinians are unreasonable in demanding the dissolution of the state of Israel; yes, the formation of Israel unfairly kicked thousands of Palestinians off their land, but that was 70 years ago. The great-grandchildren of those Palestinians never had that land at all, and the great-grandchildren of those Israeli's are not responsible for that injustice. Retroactively scanning the pages of history for evils and trying to hold the descendants of wrongdoers accountable, or compensating the descendants of the victims, does not help matters. Truly, it only causes further injustice. 

But it is not merely those who feel they are disadvantaged by prior government actions who demand compensation. Rather, it is those who feel they are disadvantaged by anything; society, bigotry, poverty, disease, birth defect, etc. Even if the government is not responsible for the perceived handicap, people feel entitled to government perks in an attempt to "level the playing field". This, too, is illogical. When our Declaration declared that "all men are created equal", it meant everybody had equal value, equal rights and should be treated equally by their government. It did not mean all people are created the same. Some are created smart, others stupid; some attractive, some ugly; some right handed, some left handed; some black, some white; some straight, some gay. Our differences are not limited to genetics. Some are born into wealth, others poverty; some are born into Christian families, others into Muslim families. None of us chooses where we are born or what characteristics we are born with, it is all random, the luck of the draw, one giant genetic and familial lottery. Any of these features, characteristics, or birth traits might be more advantageous to attain wealth, happiness, respect, success, or other commonly desired ends than others. It is not the purpose of the government to make corrections for these facts of the universe. Nobody is entitled to "a fair shake."

A wise, vitriolic, and very liberal man named Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a story which imagined a world in which the government did try to give everyone a fair shake. But unlike the worlds imagined by many of his liberal peers (cough cough John Lennon), this world was a dystopia. The story, titled "Harrison Bergeron," is easily accessible online, not very long, and well worth the read. In this world, the government does not try to treat everyone equally; instead it tries to make everyone the same. Athletic people are made to wear weights around their appendages to make them just as athletic as anyone else. Pretty people have their faces disfigured, their bodies in some way maimed, to make them just as attractive as anyone else. Intelligent people are made to wear headphones which play annoying, distracting noises so they can only think as well as anyone else. Nobody has any advantage over anyone: everyone's abilities, characteristics, and chances of success are the same.

Obviously, such a world would be a hellish place to live. But if we agree people who are born smart shouldn't be made to sacrifice their intelligence to make it fair for stupid people, why is it then ok to demand that people who are born into wealth sacrifice their money to make it fair for poor people? We have no more say on what socioeconomic status we are born into than we do on what traits we are born with. Smarts, looks, race, native language, parental influence, the neighborhood in which we live: there are an infinite number of characteristics and conditions which shape our identity. Each of these characteristics, both biological and circumstantial, affect our likelihood of success at certain endeavors. And none of them should be the government's concern.

Our nation's founding documents outline exactly what the government should concern itself with: the defense of each human's unalienable birthrights. But once these rights are defended, once our government ensures that people do not abuse or harm one another, it should let the cards fall where they will. Because in truth, it is precisely these differences, these inequalities in money and ability, which drive human cooperation. People act because of incentive, and acquiring that which we have not is a powerful incentive. If everybody had the same stuff, nobody would want anything that anybody else had.

For instance, rich people have money, and want work to be done at their companies. Poor people want money, and have time to work at those companies. So rich people pay poor people to do work, and that work drives the economy and betters the world. But people are born into more than just money; they're born into intelligence, good looks, personality, knowledge, skills. And just as many are born without money, many are born without these traits; in that sense, we are all in some way disadvantaged. Because not everybody has them, each of these things is as desirable to somebody somewhere as money is to a poor person. In a world in which nobody has any advantages over another, humans cannot use their unique characteristics to their advantage. It is our differences in traits, in culture, in resources, in abilities and motivations which make the free market work; everybody has something which someone else desires, and so everyone can help one another through a system of voluntary exchange.

I'll close with the wise words of the father of Austrian economics, Ludwig von Mises:
"The liberal champions of equality under the law were fully aware of the fact that men are born unequal and that it is precisely their inequality that generates social cooperation and civilization. Equality under the law was in their opinion not designed to correct the inexorable facts of the universe and to make natural inequality disappear. It was, on the contrary, the device to secure for the whole of mankind the maximum of benefits it can derive from it."
It was, in other words, the device to allow the disadvantaged to help themselves.



    This flawed notion of a "fair shake" is exactly what Obama has based both his campaigns upon.

  2. Interesting. So, the government should have no hand in providing services for handicapped people? Interpreters for deaf folks? Requirements for closed captioning on TV for deaf people? Handicapped ramps? These should all be privatized? I hardly call any of those a hand-out or an unwarranted entitlement.

    1. No, the government should have no hand in these things. I think all of those services are very important and should be provided, but just not by the state because that's not the state's just function. I would happily contribute to an organization designed to provide those services of my own volition. What I would not do is go up to my neighbor with a gun to his head, demand he give me his money, and then give that money to such an organization. And I would also not hire a policeman to do that for me.

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  4. So.. the government shouldn't help poor people go to college, is what you're saying. And the government shouldn't help blind or deaf people be able to get an education.

    And how far back are we allowed to complain about injustices? Is 5 years too far back? 20 years? What if our grandfather's home was stolen and he was killed, but the government refused to do anything about it for 10 years, or 20, or 50? When are we supposed to stop complaining about injustices, and simply "take it like a man" and say "we were screwed, but that's life"?

    1. No, they shouldn't help poor people go to college. Not only for the reasons I've explained to Aaron, but because by doing so they've actually made college even more expensive. The rapid increase in college tuition has increased in lockstep alongside increases in federal aid, because the aid has largely caused the increase. Universities now actually lobby for more federal aid just so they have an excuse to raise tuition and get free money from taxpayers.

      Also, by removing the college loans system from the private sector, government has removed the link between receiving loans and having the ability to pay it back. In the private banking system, if you want a loan for college you have to demonstrate that because of getting this degree, you will be able to secure a good job and make your payments on time. That means private banks often require loan recipients to major in something pragmatic like business or engineering, rather than something with minimal job prospects like art history. But since the government's objective has merely been to expand college attendance, they have not implemented these checks. Instead, they've encouraged everyone to go to college, regardless of financial situation, regardless of major or job prospects, and regardless of high school performance. For that reason, both dropout rates and student loan debt are at all time highs. In fact, student loan debt just surpassed credit card debt.

      As for the expiration date of complaints, I said nothing about complaints. Complain away. I'm talking about the law. Legally, there is a statute of limitations on all crimes. If the offense is within that statue, you can file suit in a court of law. If it's not, you can't. It would be chaos without those limitations. Sometimes you need to move on.