Truly Productive People

by Don Boudreaux on August 30, 2009

in Complexity & Emergence, Current Affairs, Seen and Unseen

The letter below, to the New York Times, is an expansion of a comment that I made on this post:

Ted Kennedy’s canonization is too much.  Every day brings the deaths of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom are known only to their families and friends.  These people aren’t mourned by politicians, reporters, or the general public.

Yet almost every one of these unheralded persons has been more productive than has Ted Kennedy – or Chuck Grassley, Nancy Pelosi, the Georges Bush, or any other politician you name, whether he or she be still breathing or buried.

Who installed the windows in my house?  I don’t know.  Yet he provided value to me and never forced his hand into my wallet or his nose into my eating habits.  Who will fly the plane that will carry me home tomorrow from Michigan to Virginia?  I have no idea.  Yet that pilot will render unto me (and dozens of others) a valuable service in exchange for funds that I voluntarily paid to his or her employer.  That pilot doesn’t force me to fly.  Nor does he or she presume to know better than I do what is best for my family and me.

Who caught the fish that I will eat tonight?  Who trucked it from the sea to my hotel?  Who will cook that fish?  Who designed the dishwasher that cleaned the plate and utensils that I will use?

I know almost none of the millions of people whose daily efforts make possible my life and that of countless other Americans.  These people don’t hatch grand plans for arrogantly re-working society.  They offer only to deal voluntarily with me and with others, never pretending – unlike Mr. Kennedy – to be endowed with a mysterious genius and a saintly inspiration justifying haughty intrusions into the affairs of others.

Politicians are mortals.  But as their greedy lust for power and glory reveals, they are mortals especially flawed.

Donald J. Boudreaux

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Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 11:30 am

Well said, The sanctimonious outpouring over Ted Kennedy is insufferable. It is grotesque. I only wish someone had carried a placard at the funeral – Remember Jo.

Anyone can stand on his hind legs and spout about saving the world but it is in his private dealings with a woman that a man’s true moral fibre is revealed.

Anonymous August 31, 2009 at 1:49 am

No matter how grotesque the celebrity, no matter what field of endeavor the celebrity came from, no matter how immoral or corrupt a scum, or how mundane the talent or ability of the celebrity, if the celebrity meets the right criteria of the MSM, that celebrity will be canonized.

Teddy met the criteria, uber-socialist, mouthing the right words. Nuff said.

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 11:41 am

This is one of your best letters. It describes the experiences of all of us. Populist in the best sense of the word.

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Thank you, Professor, for standing against the crowd and pointing out that this hero of the left never produced a dime’s worth of value his entire life. Instead, he spent his entire miserable existence practicing charity with the looted earning’s of others, while simultaneously enacting endless legislation punishing and penalizing those who actually do produce something.

It is instructive that the left hates any businessman or entreprenuer who earns his fortune — but worships any mediocrity like Kennedy or Kerry that inherits their fortune and never lifts a finger to earn it.

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 1:14 pm

As always when I read a comment this good I can’t help but move on to the solutions. How can we turn the tables on the zero cost / large hagiographic gain to politicians when they spend other peoples money? The best thing we have come up with is to promote lower taxes so as to reduce the funds they waste. But that’s an indirect solution. I wish we had something better.

Economiser August 30, 2009 at 3:58 pm

We could try to create an enumerated list of a few limited powers that the federal government has, and prevent them from exercising powers that go beyond said list. If we include these limitations in some sort of constitutional document, the legislators elected to form the government will have no choice but to abide by them. Can’t fail.

Anonymous August 31, 2009 at 1:14 pm

A politician deductible. They should have to immediately write a cheque for whatever their proportionate tab will be for a policy down the line. Cheques can be made out to all those who vote nay. It’s not a lot, but it would discourage kicking the expense cans down the road.

Mark August 30, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Like Kennedy, Michael Jackson was canonized at his funeral in spite of all his flaws. Jackson, unlike Kennedy did provide the young and old with value in the form of entertainment. I was three years old when Michael Jackson came out with ‘Thriller.’ Today, people across all generations are still singing to thriller and his other works that he created across his lifelong career.

TeeJaw August 30, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Wouldn’t it be nice if those heroic millions who make life good for us could go one more step in their daily struggles and learn to stop voting for the likes of Ted Kennedy and his comrades who are simply adding to their burden and making it more difficult for them to reap the benefits of their labor. The politicians may have finally jumped the shark with their meddling in the lives of others and people may be getting fed up. It looks promising and will be interesting if it happens.

Steve August 30, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Don – along the same line – you will want to read this

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Politicians are mortals. But as their greedy lust for power and glory reveals, they are mortals especially flawed.

Donald J. Boudreaux

This is as close to bigotry for a group as you can get. Thought to it’s logical conclusion one has to assume you are an anarchist.
We all want recognition and acceptance for the things we do. Are heads of Economics departments, Military Commanders, CEO’s or Presidents of Homeowners boards all guilty of power seeking? This is how all societies work. If Ted Kennedy ends up being a small part of passing health care reform he indeed may have helped save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Our country has been the economic leader during his tenure in the senate. Your claim would be he’s done more harm then good. Maybe but maybe not. But one thing is for sure you nor I knew the heart of Ted Kennedy. It’s possible he was the evil villain you despise but it’s also possible he was a sincere man flawed like all of us but dedicated to working in the system as it is deeply devoted to improving the world he was leaving for his grandchildren.

You may hate politicians and policy and the political process but in the end from a pragmatic stand point the process is real and unavoidable and policy matters. I think most people of the world would see the efforts of a man to insure universal health care to all of a citizenry as noble and the idea of free market health care systems as evil. Maybe you are right that a fee market system would be better but there is a distinct chance that your system would create horrific results and is indeed the evil choice. Of all of the observers on this planet your position is considered the likely one that is flawed and not Ted Kennedy’s.

Sam Grove August 30, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Fawning over those who throw us crumbs from the banquent provided by those who labor to create value is like unto the subjects of queens and kings who bow at the passing of their lords, hoping for a glimpse and perhaps a small favor.

Ted Kennedy may have supported health care benefits to assuage his guilt at his own good fortune, but he did not give up the easy life.

No George, Ted was one of the fabulously wealthy people that you often complain about, but as long as he’s tossing crumbs to the poor and has that capital “D” after his name, he will be your knight in shining armor.

I’m thinking of several I’ve spoken with who acknowledge that the wealthy run the world and there’s little we can do about that except maybe get a little bit back in the form of government benefits. But the reality is that you are helping to foot the bill for the banquets of the wealthy while marveling at the crumbs that are left for the rest of us.

dsylexic August 30, 2009 at 3:05 pm

thats absurd.people crave for recognition ,yes thats not a should you eulogize hitler?. he got a lot of attention?
people spending their own money eulogizing someone they revere is not a problem.making a saint out of a bully who would not have got any of his so called glorious plans put into action without actually stealing other people’s money is immoral .
anyone can make grand plans with other people’s money.its bogus.its been happening since time immemorial.the nonstop eulogizing on taxpayer’s time and money -that’s decidedly uncivilized

mcwop August 30, 2009 at 3:48 pm

How many people did the government kill during his tenure? If I am an anarchist, then so be it, but from your posts you appear to be nothing but a government fascist.

Anonymous August 31, 2009 at 4:58 am

I know of at least one that Teddy killed!

MWG August 30, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Who’s the “surf” now moron?

Ike Pigott August 30, 2009 at 9:01 pm


When Ted Kennedy (and others) vote to assuage their conscience about “helping the little guy,” no one questions what they BELIEVE to be their motives.

It is still inescapable, however, that the means with which Kennedy, et al, provide those services still comes about at the point of a gun.

Voting to take from some to fulfill a charitable whim is still strong-arm and theft.

Taken to its logical conclusion, you firmly believe the ends justify the means.

That is an abuse I cannot abide, because your stance is the justification for Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and villains far worse. They were never villains in their own minds, of course. They were just doing what they thought best.

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Come on Ike!!! You guys and your “..spending other peoples money…” and “…at a point of a gun..” and the “… tyranny of the majority…” memes are really tiring.

Seriously, if you feel this way why do you chose to live in this country?

“Taken to its logical conclusion, you firmly believe the ends justify the means.”

No taken to its logical conclusion I firmly believe in a democratic government of, by and for THE PEOPLE.

Your philosophy taken to it’s logical conclusion results in serfdom as the extremely wealthy will eventually buy up all the land and allow YOU to till their soil for a price.

My philoshy has lead to the most proseprous stable social democracies you see all around the world. Most of them are a bit screwed up right now because YOUR philosophy got a bit too much traction here in the USA and destroyed the worlds economy.

Off course those strong social democracies like France, Canada and Germany seem to have fared better then the Icelands and Irelands that too closely followed our model.

Peter .B.P. August 31, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Principal content of this post is false dichotomy, false stereotyping and the good old democratic “if you don’t like it, leave”; implying that dissidents should not have a say in matters.

Anonymous August 31, 2009 at 8:48 pm

the extremely wealthy will eventually buy up all the land and allow YOU to till their soil for a price.
Thanks. That made my day.

Peter .B.P. August 31, 2009 at 12:31 pm

10% mostly logically flawed content, 90% emotion.

hamilt0n August 31, 2009 at 4:35 pm

I enjoy a comment like this, as it helps me learn things. All this time I thought I had been reading CBO reports that said Obamacare would dramatically increase costs! Thanks for letting me know it will save us billions, muirgeo!

Pat Gunning August 30, 2009 at 3:38 pm

I couldn’t have said it better… “Hail to the common man” I too am fed up with the excessive admiration for narcissistic public figures with feet of clay.

This man was hailed as a hero to the downtrodden for his socialist remedies that could easily have been accomplished by the private sector in a far more efficient and meaningful way.

Great post!

Curious August 30, 2009 at 4:49 pm

“Yet almost every one of these unheralded persons has been more productive than has Ted Kennedy”

Not true. Many of those unheralded persons produced nothing – only a vote for Ted Kennedy.

He was an enterpreneur, selling goods and services (albeit stolen) … for votes, making a profit in the process. Such a supply of cheap goods and services brought happiness to the buyers (his voters) and so they mourn his demise.

Don’t like it? Don’t blame Ted Kennedy, it’s democracy that deserves the blame.

Surfisto August 30, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Is democracy to blame or the current democratic process? We know democracy is our best option although with its flaws. However, I am debating if the process is getting better overall or declining? Are we more informed now, I mean we have access to a wealth of information, but does that make us dumb? I like Bryan Caplan’s video on the myth of the rational voter. Have not read the book, does he talk about the democratic process (Campaigning, information, etc.)?

Anonymous August 31, 2009 at 10:07 am

True, oh so true.

Robert Higgs August 30, 2009 at 6:08 pm


You write: “Politicians are mortals. But as their greedy lust for power and glory reveals, they are mortals especially flawed.” Nicely put.

Pope Gregory VII (1073-85), the initiator of the momentous papal revolution of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, wrote along similar lines: “Who does not know that kings and princes derive their origin from men ignorant of God who raised themselves above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder — in short by every kind of crime — at the instigation of the Devil, the prince of this world, men blind with greed and intolerable in their audacity?” I would add to His Holiness’s statement only that not only do government leaders derive from such men, but they themselves are such men. If they were not, they would soon be displaced by men who are. People who are not inclined toward a life of crime do not succeed as the leaders of criminal gangs.

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 9:20 pm

“If they were not, they would soon be displaced by men who are.”

Good point. People respond predictably to incentives. And powerful coercive monopolies create very sinister incentives.

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Hear, hear.

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Those awful politicians, including overrated sink-or-swim Teddy, have done and are doing a great deal to fund Don’s paycheck, either directly or indirectly. Pell anyone?

I once heard a judge tell an aggreived government contractor , “if you are going to suck at the breast of mother government, don’t bite the nipple.”

Don – nursing at the breast of mother government.

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 9:19 pm

So what if he is?

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 10:39 pm

“Don – nursing at the breast of mother government.”

And using most of his productive life striving to persuade governments to stop doing it. I can think of no better use, these days, of taxpayer funds.

Name August 30, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Right on, right on, and right on!! You nailed that one home!!

Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 10:52 pm

“Yet almost every one of these unheralded persons has been more productive than has Ted Kennedy”

Wait… doesn’t that go against the libertarian rule that those who have lots of money must have been those that were more productive.

Are you saying it’s possible for people to get supper wealthy without adding anything productive to the economy?

Sam Grove August 31, 2009 at 1:29 am

Are you saying it’s possible for people to get supper wealthy without adding anything productive to the economy?

Of course. Mr. Assumption.

Marco August 31, 2009 at 11:16 am

Yes. Its called ‘stealing’.

Peter .B.P. August 31, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Strawman, that isn’t a libertarian rule.

And yes, under big government that dishes out privilege left and right to the friends of politicians, yes, of course it’s possible getting rich without labor. Oddly, you seem to support such a model.

Dan Murray August 31, 2009 at 12:28 am

Well stated.

Anonymous August 31, 2009 at 2:18 am

Don…Like politicians, bloggers and letter-to-the-editor writers like you are mortals, whose greedy lust for ego gratification through the self-publication of every letter you write, suggests the “mortals especially flawed” category includes you along with the late Senator.
We get it, Don. You don’t like government or politicians. Well, there is much to like and dislike about both. But to say that the thousands of largely anonymous people who die each day — very few of whom, if any, you know — have “…been more productive than has Ted Kennedy…or any other politician you name” living or dead,
is just plain dumb.
Bless the window installers, pilots, truckers and others — flawed mortals all — with whom we voluntarily conduct commerce. Bless too the flawed mortals who govern, police and defend our nation.

The Reticulator August 31, 2009 at 3:51 am

You should show a little more respect to the news media people among us. The Kennedy family was very important to their lives. This is a difficult loss for them. Let them have their time of mourning.

Randy August 31, 2009 at 10:28 am

It is a fact that the planet must be shared. It is also a fact that it must be shared with thieves. But neither of these facts leads to the conclusion that the thieves must be respected. A thief, even one who claims to act in my interest, is still a thief.

robertobot August 31, 2009 at 1:18 pm

this guy was a complete douche bag.

robertobot August 31, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Ted kennedy was a complete lib,douche bag,but he stood for what he belived in,no individual rights,unlike conservatives who say they are for limited government then when elected turn their backs and screw the electorate.

Bartles August 31, 2009 at 3:33 pm

This is 100% TRUE. I would only add the insufferable ongoings of ANY and ALL celebrities. Their only cause for such adornment of “affection” is their seemingly attraction to MASS news. Common sense is not as common as commonly believed. I wish it was though.

Anonymous August 31, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Great letter. It reminds me of this quote from Isabel Paterson’s “The God of the Machine:”

If the full roll of sincere philanthropists were called, from the beginning of time, it would be found that all of them together by their strictly philanthropic activities have never conferred upon humanity one-tenth of the benefit derived from the normally self-interested efforts of Thomas Alva Edison, to say nothing of the greater minds who worked out the scientific principles which Edison applied. Innumerable speculative thinkers, inventors, and organizers, have contributed to the comfort, health, and happiness of their fellow men — because that was not their objective.

Of course, she was speaking about individuals who solicit voluntary contributions. I’m sure the benefit derived from political activities is much less.

Carlo August 31, 2009 at 10:29 pm

I don’t find the argument that any politician is less productive than most ordinary people very compelling.
Like every other job, there are good politicians and bad politicians. Good politicians provide immense value to every people in a society and should be celebrated: try to put Lincoln, Churchill or Reagan instead of Pelosi, Bush and Grassley, and you will find it a bit harder to agree with the letter.

Whether Ted Kennedy was a good politician is not obvious, but keep saying, like a lot of people do, that elected politicians are the unproductive, rotten apples of a society is simply too easy: is just a trivial form of populism.

Randy September 1, 2009 at 8:56 am

Re; “a trivial form of populism”

Not so trivial. It was disrespect that ended the power of the Catholic church and reduced it to an easily ignorable organization with a moral perspective, and it is disrespect that will do the same to the Progressives. A new reformation.

Carlo September 4, 2009 at 3:05 pm

I strongly disagree: unfortunately the Catholic Church is not an easily ignorable organization, but my point was different.

Politicians’ legitimation, unlike for priests, comes from citizens. Having people continuously saying that all politicians are just like priests (they tell you what to do and make a living out of your gullibility, thereby avoiding to have a productive job) is not only false, but weakens the democratic process itself.

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