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Faceless Plunder

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Robert Samuelson shines when describing how politicians endanger the economy by cravenly catering to constituents who insist on spending each other’s – that is, on spending other people’s – money (“Who’s not bargaining in good faith?” Dec. 3).  This corrosive irresponsibility is the result less of sinister motives than of the fact that, when presented with the opportunity to spend the money of faceless others, too many people find it easy to rationalize the resulting plunder.

It’s very much like the situation described by William Dean Howells in his great 1885 novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, when an Englishman, having offered Lapham a shady business deal, tries to calm Lapham’s concerns by assuring him that a loss is highly unlikely but that, should it occur, the loss would “fall upon people who are able to bear it”:

“There was nothing in the Englishman’s sophistry very shocking to Lapham.  It addressed itself in him to that easy-going, not evilly intentioned, potential immorality which regards common property as common prey, and gives us the most corrupt municipal governments under the sun – which makes the poorest voter, when he has tricked into place, as unscrupulous in regard to others’ money as an hereditary prince.”*

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982 [1885]), pp. 285-286.