Empty? Mindless?

by Don Boudreaux on November 17, 2007

in Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter that I sent today to the Baltimore Sun:

Although de rigueur among
"progressives," Jim Salvucci is mistaken to describes bourgeois values
as "empty" and consumerism as "mindless" (Letters, November 17).
Bourgeois values encourage the substantive and mindful traits of hard
work, sobriety, thrift, honesty, and self-reliance – all which earn
their practitioners the ability over time to enjoy greater material
comforts and amusements.

What is truly empty is the value that
counsels A to live off of the wealth given to him by B and which B
confiscated from C.  And what is truly mindless is the notion that
society progresses as greater numbers of us live as A’s or as B’s, and
all the while thinking of C’s as being nothing more than contemptible
cows to be milked for the "general good."

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

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{ 50 comments }

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 12:56 pm

As for Bourgeois values don't forget …. greed, indifference, arrogance, sense of entitlement, extreme cognitive dissonance, …

Contemptible Cow November 17, 2007 at 1:10 pm

At least Muirgeo goes through the excercise of setting up a straw man argument.

Sam Grove November 17, 2007 at 1:35 pm

What is truly empty is the value that counsels A to live off of the wealth given to him by B and which B confiscated from C.

Not only that, but the hierarchical structure of B is a primal remnant of social dominance observed in many species. One might say it's instinctual.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 1:46 pm

To complete this thought, "What is truly empty is the value that counsels A to live off of the wealth given to him by B and which B confiscated from C," …

… and wealth which C deludes himself into believing was accumulated solely due to his own efforts.

kebko November 17, 2007 at 4:14 pm

Plac Ebo, I think everyone here is very familiar with gains from trade. Adam Smith wrote 230 years ago how we all gain from cooperation with the butcher, baker & brewer – all being better off because each is cooperating voluntarily in support of his own self interest. The interdependence of all citizens is a bedrock notion of capitalism. But, all this voluntary cooperation & the wealth that comes from it is possible ONLY through the right of each individual to his own labor & property.

So you have it exactly backwards. We don't want to keep what is ours because we think we earned it solely due to our own efforts. Instead, it is only when we can keep what is our own that we can freely cooperate to make the world a better & wealthier place.

kebko November 17, 2007 at 4:14 pm

Plac Ebo, I think everyone here is very familiar with gains from trade. Adam Smith wrote 230 years ago how we all gain from cooperation with the butcher, baker & brewer – all being better off because each is cooperating voluntarily in support of his own self interest. The interdependence of all citizens is a bedrock notion of capitalism. But, all this voluntary cooperation & the wealth that comes from it is possible ONLY through the right of each individual to his own labor & property.

So you have it exactly backwards. We don't want to keep what is ours because we think we earned it solely due to our own efforts. Instead, it is only when we can keep what is our own that we can freely cooperate to make the world a better & wealthier place.

Forbes November 17, 2007 at 6:05 pm

Well Plac Ebo, I know I'm completely indifferent to your arrogance, entitlement, and dissonance. Sounds like a deeply personal problem to me.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 7:07 pm

Hey Forbes, open your eyes. I'm just the messenger.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 7:30 pm

kebko, you make it sound so innocent and a panacea to what ails society when you say, "… it is only when we can keep what is our own that we can freely cooperate to make the world a better & wealthier place."

Unless there is some mechanism in place to keep the concentration of wealth to a minimum, all that talk of freedom, cooperation and prosperity is hollow rhetoric. A healthy society needs more than just a semblance of fairness. For the good of all members of society wealth constantly must be redistributed. The trick is finding the level that doesn't destroy individual ambition and motivation.

Randy November 17, 2007 at 7:56 pm

PE,

A healthy society needs more than just a semblance of fairness. For the good of all members of society wealth constantly must be redistributed

Lucky for many that they aren't treated fairly. Did you ever consider that dependance on the productive members of society makes insulting them a really bad idea? What happens when people get sick of the crap and just stop redistributing? Oh, don't tell me – the losers will become violent, right? Hey, bring it.

Chris O'Leary November 17, 2007 at 8:28 pm

"…and wealth which C deludes himself into believing was accumulated solely due to his own efforts."

Ah, our old friend the "Ill-gotten gains" argument; that it's no crime to steal something that the holder stole from someone else.

The founding ideas, and rationalization, of socialism.

Chris O'Leary November 17, 2007 at 8:31 pm

"A healthy society needs more than just a semblance of fairness. For the good of all members of society wealth constantly must be redistributed."

Why?

Because you say so?

What is government but the ultimate concentration of wealth (and thus power)?

Face it, you are what you despise.

gator80 November 17, 2007 at 8:43 pm

Too classic! The Marxist, of all people, says the Capitalist is 'innocent' and proposing a 'panacea,' when the Marxist knows that all we need to do is 'redistribute' wealth right up to the point where it 'destroys…ambition and motivation.'

Isn't irony wonderful?

Richard Pointer November 17, 2007 at 8:46 pm

I believe Schumpeter wrote of Marx, that it is bourgeois values that would pave the way for the construction of communism. Inherent in Marx is an admiration for those values. Too bad nuanced thinking is not a "progressive" trait.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 8:56 pm

Calm down comrades!

kebko November 17, 2007 at 9:00 pm

"Unless there is some mechanism in place to keep the concentration of wealth to a minimum, all that talk of freedom, cooperation and prosperity is hollow rhetoric."

The middle class is solely the product of capitalism. There is no other system that has ever produced a wealthy middle class. The reason you think it's everyone's birthright to be wealthy is because 250 years of capitalism have made it so.

Hardly hollow rhetoric, there have been 2 centuries of revolutionary economic discovery and social experience to make it pretty obvious.

Look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 80 years ago. You'll see companies with names like "Standard Rope & Twine". If we had free & open capitalism, do you think we'd all be under the foot of a rope & twine empire that just kept getting more & more powerful at our expense? Do you think it was only the levelling power of government redistribution that saved us from the rope & twine cartel? It was the natural competition of the marketplace that kicked the rope & twine makers out of the Dow Jones. They've been replaced by new organizations that have made us all wealthier by creating computers, the internet, life-saving drugs, etc.

Honestly, it amazes me how anybody could live through this time and see our society in terms of haves & have-nots. With computers, the internet, wireless technologies of all sorts, incredible reductions in the cost of all things electronic, year around access to fresh fruits & vegetables, genetic knowledge, etc. etc. etc. The world is in the midst of a revolution of wealth. Everyone can use the internet, which ranks up there with bronze & the printing press among human innovations. Almost every home in every free country has access to all the things I've listed here. These aren't innovations that only the rich have access to – these innovations have brought even the poorest members of free societies the same services that are available to the richest people. These capitalist innovations have levelled the quality of life in a revolutionary way. To argue anything else is simply delusional.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 9:15 pm

kebko: "These capitalist innovations have levelled the quality of life in a revolutionary way. To argue anything else is simply delusional."

How do you reconcile all this "levelling" with the increasing concentration of wealth in the US?

Chris O'Leary November 17, 2007 at 9:25 pm

"How do you reconcile all this 'levelling' with the increasing concentration of wealth in the US?"

If you spent some real time on this site, you'd find that there are major holes in the idea that the concentration of wealth is increasing.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 9:34 pm

gator80 says: "Too classic! The Marxist, of all people, says the Capitalist is 'innocent' and proposing a 'panacea,' when the Marxist knows that all we need to do is 'redistribute' wealth right up to the point where it 'destroys…ambition and motivation.'

Isn't irony wonderful?"

Yet, somehow today's capitalist gets the dreaded "state" to do their bidding as they redistribute wealth in their favor.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 9:40 pm

If you spent some real time on this site, you'd find that there are major holes in the idea that the concentration of wealth is increasing.
(Posted by: Chris O'Leary)

=====
Don't rely solely on Neal Boortz and John Stossel.

Chris O'Leary November 17, 2007 at 9:41 pm

"Yet, somehow today's capitalist gets the dreaded 'state' to do their bidding as they redistribute wealth in their favor."

I doubt if many libertarians would argue that the system as it exists is vulnerable to manipulation.

Where we differ is the solution to the problem.

You think the solution is to make the government more powerful. Libertarians think that solution has been thoroughly discredited by the experience of the USSR and Cuba (and their rampant corruption and inequality). As a great man once said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Read "Animal Farm".

Libertarians believe the solution is to make the government weaker. By weakening the government, you remove the benefits of influencing it.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 10:11 pm

"…Libertarians believe the solution is to make the government weaker. By weakening the government, you remove the benefits of influencing it."
(Posted by: Chris O'Leary)

=====
The rich and powerful will then substitute massive corporate bureaucracies as a pseudo-government to do their bidding.

The Dirty Mac November 17, 2007 at 10:23 pm

"Yet, somehow today's capitalist gets the dreaded "state" to do their bidding as they redistribute wealth in their favor."

The current farm bill, renewable fuels subsidies, and protection from foreign competition come immediately to mind. But I don't think that's what Plac Ebo means by that statement.

Plac Ebo November 17, 2007 at 10:36 pm

"The current farm bill, renewable fuels subsidies, and protection from foreign competition come immediately to mind. …"
(Posted by: The Dirty Mac)

=====
Agree Strongly with you on farm bill;
Agree on renewable fuels subsidies;
Mixed Feelings on foreign competition protection.

Chris O'Leary November 17, 2007 at 10:54 pm

"The rich and powerful will then substitute massive corporate bureaucracies as a pseudo-government to do their bidding."

So you're saying that, if left unchecked, Wal-Mart will eventually run the world? People said the same thing about IBM back in the 70s and 80s.

It didn't turn out that way.

Also, I would PREFER it if the world was run by naturally accountable corporate bureaucracies rather than far less accountable government bureaucracies.

Marcus November 17, 2007 at 11:00 pm

"Mixed Feelings on foreign competition protection."

Then understand comparative advantage and your feelings won't be mixed any more.

Protecting American businesses from foreign competition pulls capital investment away from more profitable ventures to less profitable ventures.

You don't make Americans richer by making less and less efficient use of capital.

Marcus November 17, 2007 at 11:06 pm

"Unless there is some mechanism in place to keep the concentration of wealth to a minimum, all that talk of freedom, cooperation and prosperity is hollow rhetoric."

This is nonsense. It appears based on the false belief that the size of the pie is fixed.

A real good recent counter example is Google. 10 years ago it didn't exist. Today the two founders are multibillionaires.

But they didn't take that money from any one. People who valued their services gladly and willingly gave it to them in exchange for their services. Services that make us ALL richer.

We are ALL richer because of Google.

That's how capitalism works.

Chris O'Leary November 17, 2007 at 11:18 pm

"You don't make Americans richer by making less and less efficient use of capital."

You're missing the point.

The point isn't to make people rich. It's to make people equal.

Like in Cuba. Everyone's poor, but they are EQUALLY poor.

It's the ultimate race to the bottom.

Ray G November 17, 2007 at 11:23 pm

For the good of all members of society wealth constantly must be redistributed. The trick is finding the level that doesn't destroy individual ambition and motivation.

In other words, a more perfect society will be able to infringe on the rights of one individual in order to support another individual just enough.

Well, there have been quite a number of efforts at making redistribution of wealth work and nothing has worked yet. It's simple for the would-be collectivist to take a snapshot of some scenario and say "Aha, redistribution works!" but of course over time all of the same problems always arise.

In taking apart the various historical examples of collectivist failures the answer of the collectivist always comes down to "If the greedy people would just quit being so greedy" . . . They don't say it quite so plainly, but essentially their plan always hinges on human nature somehow changing for them, which of course dooms said plan to certain failure.

Sam Grove November 17, 2007 at 11:47 pm

Redistribution schemes entail an agency of redistribution.

An agency of redistribution acts through political power.

An agency of political power ALWAYS delivers this power into the bidding of an oligarchy.

The powerful then influence to redistribute wealth into their pockets.

Anybody got a counter example?

The ONLY way to avoid this is to learn how to live without an agency of coercive redistribution.

Chris O'Leary November 17, 2007 at 11:52 pm

"In taking apart the various historical examples of collectivist failures the answer of the collectivist always comes down to 'If the greedy people would just quit being so greedy' . . . They don't say it quite so plainly, but essentially their plan always hinges on human nature somehow changing for them, which of course dooms said plan to certain failure."

This is an excellent and critical point.

When designing any system, its success depends on the assumptions you make. No system is going to be successful if in designing it you ignore human nature.

And just because YOU are the nicest person in the world, it doesn't mean that you're like everyone else. Those who think this way need to research the Projection Bias and read "The Sociopath Next Door", which explains why evil will always persist.

kebko November 18, 2007 at 12:08 am

"Yet, somehow today's capitalist gets the dreaded "state" to do their bidding as they redistribute wealth in their favor."

This is one of those illuminating misunderstandings. If there is wisdom in the libertarian outlooks being proposed here, and if you spend some effort trying to find that wisdom, you will see that this statement is exactly missing the point. Industrialists, like all powerful interests, will try to use the power of government to gain advantage. A capitalist would oppose that. Industrialists, like all citizens, should live within a capitalist system. And it has nothing to do with capitalism when they use political power for personal gain any more than it is capitalist for you to use political power for your redistribution schemes.

Student November 18, 2007 at 12:25 am

Very well said Prof. Boudreaux.

"For the good of all members of society (those who advocate that) wealth constantly must be redistributed (must be incarcerated)"
Vladimir Ebo(or is it Evo?)

Sam Grove November 18, 2007 at 2:23 am

Many are not familiar with the term "mercantilism".

Libertarians oppose mercantilism.

As Ayn Rand put it: "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal"

muirgeo November 18, 2007 at 2:32 am

Libertarians believe the solution is to make the government weaker. By weakening the government, you remove the benefits of influencing it.

Posted by: Chris O'Leary

Yes, and there are so many examples through history and the present to point to as evidence for such.

I'm sorry but its gosh dern silly to think that the country that has the weakest government will be the most successful.

Further, I've never heard a libertarian give a plausible explanation of how to make the government weaker.

Supposedly Reagan did that with his deregulation. But 25 years later we see more government spending then ever, increased governmental abuse, more authoratarian / Orwellian policies, increased constitutional erosion and massive government secrecy and corruption.

And funny enough we see excuses made one after the other by libertarians as to why these trends are so good compared to the progressive alternatives.

Brad November 18, 2007 at 2:39 am

OK, here's the deal. Everyone has one or two of these people in their family that decry consumerism and all the spending at Christmas time and all that. They're not revolutionaries and not terribly chic. They're just cheap and jealous. And the easiest part of dealing with them is a that a $20 gift card for Starbucks in their stocking makes them feel like a worthless ass well into April.

muirgeo November 18, 2007 at 2:42 am

Also, I would PREFER it if the world was run by naturally accountable corporate bureaucracies rather than far less accountable government bureaucracies.

Posted by: Chris O'Leary

Amazing….you'd rather live under corporate rule the rule by the people. I'm pretty sure this is NOT what the founders had in mind. And it is exactly what we fought the Revolution for. I guess were you around then you'd have sided with King George then as well.
Its a laugh to here libertarians suggest they will have more liberty in a corporate dominated world. The first thing you'd see in such a world is complete consolidation and control of the media including this here internet which the corporate media would love to control. Yes the Bill of rights would go down pretty much in the order they were written.

muirgeo November 18, 2007 at 2:52 am

We are ALL richer because of Google.

That's how capitalism works.

Posted by: Marcus

No. We are all richer because Google was allowed to succeed in a well regulated environment. Google would never have come into existence without regulation and taxes.

Are we also richer because of Wall Street and our banking institutions???….Didn't they just get $80 billion dollars infused into them through the fed??? Would these super wealthy be so wealthy were it not for the government saving the collective arses? Such are the reasons they need to pay back progressively to keep the system running. Hedge fund managers shouldn't be paying 15% on their taxes while the middle class is paying out the AMT.

Lee Kelly November 18, 2007 at 6:23 am

"In taking apart the various historical examples of collectivist failures the answer of the collectivist always comes down to 'If the greedy people would just quit being so greedy'"- Ray G

Even if people were not so greedy, then there is still an enormous knowledge problem to overcome. I am better at allocating resources for myself, or my close family and friends, because I understand their circumstances and preferences far better than anyone else. If I was tasked with allocating resources to people of whom I know very little, then I should make a right mess of it.

If resources are to be allocated efficiently by a third-party, then an superhuman amount of knowledge would be required. The beauty of the freemarket is that it makes use of the knowledge dispersed amoung millions of minds, by leaving decisions which directly concern themselves, or close friends and family, to those who know most about their circumstances and preferences.

G November 18, 2007 at 6:57 am

muirgeo,

No. We are all richer because Google was allowed to succeed in a well regulated environment. Google would never have come into existence without regulation and taxes.

Please explain to me how the Internet is "regulated" and "taxed". Its a decentralized, packet-switched network. Its practically impossible TO regulate and tax, although you can do it with physical control of the nodes in the network.

Although after making such a ridiculous statement, I think its pretty obvious that muirgeo is just trolling :P

Randy November 18, 2007 at 7:49 am

Muirgeo,

The powerful do not pay taxes – they collect them. The working class pays the taxes – all of them – the form doesn't matter. They always have and they always will.

Chris O'Leary November 18, 2007 at 8:59 am

"Supposedly Reagan did that with his deregulation. But 25 years later we see more government spending then ever, increased governmental abuse, more authoratarian / Orwellian policies, increased constitutional erosion and massive government secrecy and corruption."

There's no question that today's Republican party has abandoned Reagan's idea of fiscal conservatism and has instead moved toward cronyism and even kleptocracy.

However, the answer is true fiscal conservatism, which is libertarianism, rather than socialism.

Marcus November 18, 2007 at 9:53 am

"No. We are all richer because Google was allowed to succeed in a well regulated environment. Google would never have come into existence without regulation and taxes."

I will agree with you to the extent that the rule of law is necessary. However, the rule of law is NOT regulation.

"Are we also richer because of Wall Street and our banking institutions???….Didn't they just get $80 billion dollars infused into them through the fed???"

The MLEC is privately funded. As far as I know, the fed's have not bailed out anybody and I would certainly be opposed to them doing so.

To your first question, yes, Wall Street makes us all richer. Without Wall Street their would be no Google. Without Wall Street you would still be living in a log cabin with a dirt floor.

cpurick November 18, 2007 at 10:01 am

Plac Ebo:
Unless there is some mechanism in place to keep the concentration of wealth to a minimum, all that talk of freedom, cooperation and prosperity is hollow rhetoric.

The false premise here is that "concentrations of wealth" indicates a process by which the few take from the many.

In fact, concentrations of wealth simply indicate how rare the individuals are who can truly develop it. The fact that new wealthy people continue to emerge demonstrates that the concentrations are not a zero sum game. Rich people are not trying to keep other people from becoming rich. Whatever obstacles someone else's wealth presents, every new rich person proves that a process exists for overcoming those obstacles. All the rich people alive found a way around those obstacles, and society would be better if more people focused on getting around the obstacles rather than redistributing the wealth.

Quite frankly, developing wealth is like getting girls. When one guy gets a lot of girls, he's not "stealing" them from the rest of us, and it does not keep you from getting girls of your own. That is not his goal. Additionally, girls that are beyond his reach are no more likely to be with you, and that is the same with wealth as well. If society sought to limit the number of pretty girls a guy could have, who here thinks that would improve the success rate of the guys who are failures under the current model?

Plac Ebo
A healthy society needs more than just a semblance of fairness.

If I played some one-on-one with Michael Jordan and he kicked my ass, does that mean he's cheating?

Of course, you can see what Jordan does that makes him better. If you knew what the exceptionally rich man does to acquire his wealth you might do it, too, but there's a primal tendency to presume that his wealth is the result of "cheating" rather than simply being a better player.

Concentrations of wealth are extreme examples of success, not evidence of corruption.

Plac Ebo November 18, 2007 at 10:05 am

"Protecting American businesses from foreign competition pulls capital investment away from more profitable ventures to less profitable ventures.

You don't make Americans richer by making less and less efficient use of capital."
(Posted by: Marcus)

=====
Not everything can be measured by short term economic gain. For example, if we import cheaper goods from China the average American can have more crap under their XMas tree this year. But, if even part of the reason that Chinese goods are cheaper is because of lax environmental standards … then we have sacrificed the future health of the planet for a short term "material" high.

muirgeo November 18, 2007 at 10:08 am

G,

Really? The people at Google never take a crap into a public sewer system…hmmm interesting…they really must be creative. I didn't say Google was regulated but the environment in which it flourished was regulated. Google needed the government created web and other government created technologies, they needed the SEC, they needed corporate law and a corporate charter, patent law and the treasury. They needed a stable society with roads, firemen, policemen, a water district and sewer system (to crap in). In fact Google arose as the research Phd project for Larry Page and Sergey Brin which I'm guessing had some federal grants behind it. These two also attended ubic schools and uniersities. Nope Google is in NO WAY the creation of unregulated markets or of an unplanned society…if there were no regulations or no central planning there'd be no Google. What you believe is a myth..a fairy tale.

muirgeo November 18, 2007 at 10:14 am

Muirgeo,

The powerful do not pay taxes – they collect them. The working class pays the taxes – all of them – the form doesn't matter. They always have and they always will.

Posted by: Randy

I absolutely agree. The CEO's at Haliburton, at Exxon, the pharmaceutical companies and Hedge fund managers are collecting OUR tax dollars and getting rich off of them. Dr Boudreuax misstated B taking from C…..its the other way around. And indirectly C is taking from hardworking A by controlling B.

It's a real crisis I see no libertarian able to address with any adequacy.

muirgeo November 18, 2007 at 10:18 am

There's no question that today's Republican party has abandoned Reagan's idea of fiscal conservatism ….

Posted by: Chris O'Leary

Nope I won't even give you Reagan as a fiscal conservative. Spending boomed under his time and was hidden by fixing the social security books along with one of the biggest tax increases ever on the middle class.

Plac Ebo November 18, 2007 at 10:21 am

All of you that pretend that redistribution of wealth is an evil that should be eliminated are being disingenuous. Show me any modern society that does not redistribute wealth. It's impossible to have a society that does not. The question is balancing redistibution with fairness. The LONG-TERM health of a society depends on this balancing act.

cpurick November 18, 2007 at 10:49 am

The redistribution of wealth as a goal stems from a combination of ignorance that it's desirable and possible to relieve relative poverty, coupled with the ignorant belief that redistribution is an ideal or preferred solution to the perceived problem, with these factors being exploited by people who see them as a justification or means to acquiring political power.

It's natural for people who know nothing about economics, money or wealth to assume that poverty is simply a state of some people not having while others do have. While there will always be people willing to exploit this ignorance in exchange for power, there's no reason to believe that the ignorance cannot be overcome through better economic education (such as this site).

Additionally, there's no reason that policy must reflect economic ignorance just because it's widespread. In fact, the whole point of republican government is that the population at large is not as well-versed in these matters as effectively dealing with them requires.

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