Friday, October 28, 2005

Never Mind How Much Worse Things Could Get

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since F. A. Hayek wrote his deservedly famous book, The Road to Serfdom in 1944, there has been a not negligible difficulty with criticizing the welfare state. Hayek’s own famous teacher, Ludwig von Mises, articulated the same menace Hayek did early in the 20th Century as well as in a talk in 1950, now part of his book of essays, Planning for Freedom (1952). As von Mises put it,

The middle-of-the-road policy is not an economic system that can last. It is a method for the realization of socialism by installments. Many people object. They stress the fact that most of the laws which aim at planning or at expropriation by means of progressive taxation have left some loopholes which offer to private enterprise a margin within which it can go on. That such loopholes still exist and that thanks to them this country is still a free country is certainly true. But this loopholes capitalism is not a lasting system. It is a respite. Powerful forces are at work to close these loopholes. From day to day the field in which private enterprise is free to operate is narrowed down. Of course, this outcome is not inevitable. The trend can be reversed as was the case with many other trends in history. ... What we need is neither anti-socialism nor anti-communism but an open positive endorsement of that system to which we owe all the wealth that distinguishes our age from the comparatively straitened conditions of ages gone by.

What could be wrong with saying this? It is largely true, in the sense that there is a greater likelihood of a country moving from a middle-of-the-road policy—which is what the welfare state is (or as contemporary Europeans often call it, The Third Way)—all the way to an authoritarian or totalitarian regime. So with the middle-of-the-road regime in place, it certainly is a shorter and simpler road to serfdom than if a country were a fully free, laissez-faire capitalist system.

Trouble is, this isn’t all or even the main thing that’s wrong with the welfare state. By fretting a bit too much about how such a state can lead to something worse, the evils of the welfare state itself tend to be overlooked or at least de-emphasized. Everyone is concerned about how bad it will be later, few people note that the welfare state is already a big enough mess, so we should stop it already, never mind how bad it can get later.

Welfare states are ones in which government is legally authorized—in the case of the USA largely because of perverse interpretations of the US Constitution by legislatures and courts—to administer selective coercion against the citizenry, in the name of innumerable worthy goals. But no big deal, it is tempting to think, that people in the various professions are subjected to relentless government regulation (a form of unjust prior restraint however you look at it) and innumerable other abuses. What matters most, it’s suggested, is how this can lead to far worse coercion.

Not true. If I slap you around a bit because I believe you don’t do what I want you to, although you haven’t raise a finger against me, this in itself is vicious enough, never mind that I could do worse by beating you with a baseball bat. Even if I contain myself all of the time and just keep on slapping you and others, it doesn’t make what I am doing justified simply because I am not taking matters farther.

Welfare states may never get worse, in fact, because too many people often tolerate some mistreatment but will not allow things to get worse. And welfare states admittedly do not use concentration camps, so if the only problem is how bad things can get because of what they may lead to, it can look like so long as the system is contained, no big problem exists. (Of course, for those in jail for victimless crimes, sometimes for 30 years on end, one would be hard put convincing them of this.) In a welfare state one usually has one’s right to freedom of expression protected and officials of the government are more restrained in how and to what degree of brutality they wield their powers. Civil liberties, such as the right to vote, to get a speedy trial, and so on get some protection, although often very unevenly. The ACLU, for example, goes to the aid of artists, political activists, educators and such but rarely lifts a finger when people in the business world are harassed, oppressed, and subjected to discriminatory treatment (such as piling on more and more regulations of the entire business community when a few bad apples are identified).

Sure, a problem with the less Draconian evils of the welfare state is partly that they could habituate people to accept coercion from governments, making the march toward a dictatorship more probable. However, that’s not the biggest problem. It is far more serious that the welfare state is a lingering political, moral, and economic malady already—it violates individual rights all over the place and people suffer from that plenty, never mind how much worse it all could get.

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