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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Simple rules for a complex world”

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In this April 6th, 2005, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review [2], I sing the praises of simple rules for this complex world that we all inhabit. You can read the whole thing beneath the fold.

Simple rules for a complex world

My wife, Karol, and I have one child, Thomas Macaulay Boudreaux, 7. We raise him as most other children are raised. We teach Thomas — by instruction and, hopefully, also by consistent example — those rules that will best ensure that his life will be long, productive, worthwhile and happy.

These rules aren’t convoluted, dense or esoteric. Nor are they unfamiliar. They’re obvious and unassailable:

    • Don’t hit other people (unless they hit you first)
    • Don’t take other people’s stuff
    • Keep your promises
    • Be honest
    • Don’t envy others’ good fortune
    • Work hard
    • Mind your own business
    • Might does not make right
    • Don’t think yourself entitled to be excused from any of these rules.

These rules are so natural and obviously good that parents teach them to children as a matter of course. Everyone knows that people who practice these rules will almost certainly enjoy better lives than people who regularly break one or more of them.

And yet many people unthinkingly carve out a huge exception to these rules, imagining that some mysterious process renders these rules inapplicable to government.

Take, for example, the rules to avoid envy and not take other people’s stuff. In political discourse envy is stoked to encourage the taking of other people’s stuff. Politicians proudly exhort audiences to covet wealth possessed by others. In stentorian tones they promise to take from the never-precisely-identified “rich” and give to the rest of us. We’re told that we deserve this wealth simply because others have more of it than we do.

Would you ever tell your child, “Junior, if any of your classmates have nicer toys or more candy money than you have, you should envy those classmates. Stew in anger and resentment that some children have more material things than you have!”

Of course, no parent would even think of feeding his child such dysfunctional advice. So why do so many adults tolerate — and even applaud — identical sentiments when expressed by politicians• When candidates stump for income “redistribution” on the grounds that some people have more money than other people, they’re playing upon and fueling envy — an especially ugly and anti-social sentiment.

One reason we don’t want our kids to be envious is because envy discourages them from taking responsibility for their misfortunes. They’ll too readily blame others. And by falling into the habit of blaming others, children become less enterprising, resourceful and productive. Indeed, in extreme cases envy can turn them into thieves.

Speaking of thievery, what parent wouldn’t severely punish a child who actually took a classmate’s money or toys? What parent would excuse this offense if the child says, “I took it because my classmate is richer than me.” Or if the child says, “I took it because I can use those things better than my classmate can.” I’ve yet to meet the parent who would tolerate such behavior or such self-serving excuse-making in his children.

But in our politics and political discourse, we regularly tolerate these offenses. Government routinely takes money from Jones and gives it to Smith. One justification is the need for “income redistribution” — Jones simply is wealthier than Smith. An alternative justification is that Smith allegedly uses the money better than Jones can — such as when farmer Smith is paid with Jones’ money not to grow crops, or when Smith Inc. is given some of Jones’ money to help advertise its products in foreign markets.

Whatever you think of the merits of these and countless other government programs, they involve taking people’s money without their consent. I call that theft. I teach my son Thomas to call that theft.

Yes, yes, I know that ours is a republic in which we allegedly consent to taxation through the political process, by majority rule. But I remain uneasy. If Thomas informs me that he and several of his friends took another playmate’s money after voting to do so, I’ll be furious with him. And my fury will only grow if he tries to excuse his gangster thievery by telling me that the election was a fair one in which even the victim cast a ballot.

Our world indeed is complex. But because the rules we teach our children unambiguously promote their well-being and the well-being of our society, we should apply these rules with much greater consistency and not excuse voters and officeholders from these rules just because they’re acting politically.