Collectivist Notions So Easily Distort Thinking

by Don Boudreaux on March 14, 2011

in Budget Issues, Myths and Fallacies, Other People's Money

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

E.J. Dionne’s case for why governments in the U.S. aren’t financially strapped is that America has lots of wealthy people who could be more heavily taxed (“What if we’re not broke?” March 14).  The existence of yet-to-be collectivized wealth prompts Mr. Dionne to conclude that “we’re not broke.”

While the word “broke” is an overstatement (given governments’ abilities to reduce their spending), Mr. Dionne’s collectivism shines through in his use of the pronoun “we.”  If I can’t pay my bills, I’m properly described as being “broke.”  This fact changes not one bit if I discover that my neighbors have more than enough money in their bank accounts to cover my net liabilities.  “We” are not broke, but I am.

So, too, with government.  Just because it’s a creature of popular sovereignty and has the muscle to confiscate assets doesn’t mean that every cent of every citizen’s property belongs to a collective pool of assets owned by “us,” or that more private property is game to be confiscated simply because government’s books are in the red.  They – many politicians over the decades – ran up huge debts and unfunded liabilities as they overspent and overpromised.  Their doing so reflects a politically convenient discounting of the ill long-run consequences of their actions – convenient because those ill consequences were left to be dealt with in the future by others.

Well, the future is arriving.  And the agency that allowed some people to irresponsibly accrue huge liabilities in the name of “us” is urged by Mr. Dionne to confiscate more of the wealth of persons who, by and large, accumulated net wealth by taking longer-run, more responsible views than did those persons who created this fiscal mess by spending and promising to spend other people’s money.

Donald J. Boudreaux


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