Monday, August 28, 2006

It Begins with the Poor and Sick

Tibor R. Machan

Philosopher types, indeed intellectuals, are often accused of dealing too much in abstractions. As if anyone could escape dealing in abstractions—that is how we think, abstractly, after all. But the idea is really that some of us dwell too much on principles, theories and don’t get down to real, actual facts. If we did get down to the nitty-gritty we would realize that these abstractions aren’t all that valuable. So in the spirit of getting down to particular and hard facts, here is a little bitsy of a story that will show that those theorists are often well anchored in reality. But the story first needs a bit of history, told by the on line encyclopedia, Wikepedia:

“The Grafton saxophone was a plastic saxophone manufactured by the Grafton company from the late-1940s until the mid-1950s. Graftons are now collectors' items. Its most notable player was Charlie Parker. The Grafton saxophone that Parker couldn't pawn to support his heroin addiction was sold at the Christie's auction house in London in September 1994 for £93,500 sterling. The buyer was the mayor of Parker's home town, Kansas City, Kansas.”

How quaint, no? Only in this little story lies a big point. This is that governments simply cannot be counted on to stick to what is mentioned when their wide powers are defended by their intellectual cheerleaders, the thousands of statist intellectuals around the world.

Those folks, you will recall, always ask for more than minimal government, the kind the American founders designated to “secure our rights,” on the grounds that the poor, the sick, and the children surely need it. Who would help these unfortunates other than the benevolent state?
And, yes, that is one gripping story—some neglected kid or other infirm individual is left helpless by free men and women and then the government steps in with all its compassion and generosity and bails out the poor ones. Never mind that in fact the poor ones have been bailed out aplenty by those free men and women throughout the history of the relatively limited government prior to the emergence of what in time became FDR’s expanded state. There have always been ample numbers of voluntary agencies stepping up where genuine support was justified—I noted this in my book, Generosity (1998).
But that historical fact doesn’t seem to impress the cheerleaders of expanded state power. They keep bringing up the poor, sick, and orphaned so as to induce in the rest of us support for their dream society, the all powerful welfare state.
The story about the plastic saxophone illustrates very nicely, though, just how readily those in government abandon a commitment to confining their activism to helping those in dire straits. There is no way to justify the Mayor of Kansas City’s extravagance of using £93,500 sterling of taxpayers funds to buy a piece of nostalgia many in Kansas City were not interested in spending their resources on.
The fact is that no sooner does government get the power to take from Peter and do favors for Paul, those favors will far exceed stepping in as the last, badly needed provider of bona fide help. No, those abstract principles of the public choice theorists—Nobel Laureate James Buchanan and his partner Gordon Tullock—kick in immediately and the politicians, like the mayor of Kansas City, start spending tax funds for a personal agenda of their own. Yes, some of this could arise from generosity, from aesthetics, or some other benevolent motive. But it is mostly a matter of the politician’s preferences and tastes and has nothing at all to do with fulfilling any desperate need or some supposed public interest.
So, yes philosophers and other theorists seem not to be talking directly about actual cases but those principles they work out, like the folks who came up with public choice theory, apply in the real world good and hard. And the plastic saxophone case is just one of millions in which the principle is clearly, unambiguously demonstrated and confirmed.

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