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Freeman Essay #30: “The Ungrateful Pedestrian”

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In this January 1999 Freeman essay I challenge the widespread notion that government is necessarily the root of all that occurs in society [2].  My essay is below the fold.

Yesterday evening I drove to a nearby restaurant. On my way I passed several strolling pedestrians. I did not kill a single one!

Please note that I possessed near absolute ability to do so. A quick and easy flick of my wrist on the steering wheel at almost any time on my drive would have meant certain death for numerous pedestrians. But I refrained from running them over.

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The above account is true.

Suppose now that you were one of these pedestrians and I solicit from you expressions of gratitude for my not running you over. How would you react? Not only would you be indignant at my solicitation, you’d think me to be demented. And properly so. I would be insanely brazen to seek your gratitude for my not bulldozing you with my car.

And yet politicians routinely seek—and receive—praise for actions that differ in no fundamental way from the actions of drivers who avoid running down innocent pedestrians.

We are bombarded by news reports and campaign ads boasting of how this president or that governor “created” so-many-million new jobs or is responsible for whatever amount of economic growth has occurred during his or her term of office. Such claims are preposterous. They are on a moral and intellectual par with my claim that I deserve credit for not killing pedestrians with my car.

No politician creates jobs or prosperity. Jobs and prosperity are created by entrepreneurs and business firms whenever the economy is sufficiently free of government meddling. For government to avoid meddling—that is, for government to keep taxes low and to steer clear of regulating voluntary exchange—is indeed desirable. But to avoid interfering with voluntary exchange is not at all actually to create whatever jobs and prosperity emerge from voluntary exchange. To insist otherwise would be no different from my insisting that I, as a driver who did not run over Ms. Jones as she walked back from the supermarket, am responsible for the tasty dinner she cooked that evening for her family.

If a car is careening out of control onto a pedestrian walkway, anyone who leaps into the car to stop it is a genuine hero. This person does deserve applause and gratitude (while, incidentally, the persons who either intentionally or carelessly caused the car to be out of control deserve condemnation and, perhaps, jail time). But even this hero does not take credit for all that is created and produced by those who would have otherwise been killed.

Whenever that rarest of creatures–an honorable elected official–actually manages to loosen some part of government’s grip on us, that person merits bona fide acclaim. Even he or she, however, doesn’t deserve credit for whatever economic growth and cultural flourishing follow. Such credit properly belongs to the countless people who create, innovate, take risks, save, and work hard to produce what consumers want.

The idea that government deserves credit for all of the benefits produced by freedom is a special case of the pernicious deification of government. When deified, government is mistakenly seen as responsible for all that happens in society.

A distressingly large number of writers contend that what looks like government’s refusal to intervene is really just a different form of government intervention. I offer here only two examples. One is left-wing economist Warren Samuels who, in a 1995 issue of Critical Review, wrote that deregulation is simply government regulation carried out by enforcing private property rights rather than by enforcing bureaucratic edicts. When the economy is deregulated, what Samuels sees is that “[o]ne system or structure of (nominally private) coercive power is substituted for another by the very institution, government, which helped establish and/or reinforce the first one.” According to Samuels, only the unsophisticated believe that when government deregulates it thereby reduces its sway over the economy.

This view isn’t confined to left-wingers. Louis Hacker, in an otherwise fine essay appearing in F. A. Hayek’s edited volume Capitalism and the Historians, insists that “the idea of laissez faire is a fiction. For the state, by negative action—that is, by refusing to adopt certain policies—can affect economic events just as significantly as when intervention occurs.” Well, yes–in the same way that I, by not running my car over pedestrians, can affect events just as significantly as if I do kill pedestrians.

Only in the most base materialist sense are Samuels and Hacker correct: insofar as government possesses power to restrict commerce and suffocate industry with its regulations, any self-restraint by government in its zeal to regulate can be said to “affect economic events.” But such sophistry sneakily erects as the benchmark for evaluating government activity the maximum possible destruction that government could possibly inflict. If the actual amount of destruction caused by government falls short of what government could have caused, then government is credited with producing all that it refrained from destroying. Using such a benchmark is lunacy.

The Soviet military could have annihilated the United States population with an atomic attack at almost any time during the cold war. Should we then credit the Soviet military for our current prosperity and our very lives? Does it really make sense to speak of the Soviet military as having “affected economic events” by not launching a nuclear strike against America? If so, then why not also credit the decision by the British military not to launch a nuclear attack against us as a cause of our prosperity?

Refraining from interfering in other people’s affairs is simply the right thing for everyone, including government, to do. Our praise is properly reserved for people who heroically help others whom they have no duty to help, while our condemnation is properly reserved for people who intrude uninvited into others’ lives. (By the way, to heroically help another person is to do so voluntarily and with your own resources and effort. You’re no hero if you are coerced into giving aid to another; you’re a slave. Likewise, you’re no hero if you coercively confiscate the resources or efforts of third parties to help others; you’re a thug.)

Until someone convinces me that I deserve a ticker-tape parade every time that I don’t run down a pedestrian with my car, I will find intolerable the misbegotten gratitude and applause that politicians receive for not destroying even more of our liberties and wealth than they currently ravage.

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