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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Creating prosperity”

In the August 29th, 2008, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I reflected on politicians’ contributions to human prosperity. You can read my reflections beneath the fold.

Creating prosperity

Driving to the office today I passed several pedestrians. I killed none of them!

I could easily have done so. A flick of my wrist on the steering wheel at almost any time would have meant certain death for numerous pedestrians. But no! I let all of them live. I’m so proud of myself.

Suppose 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? You surely, and rightly, would think me to 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’re bombarded by news reports and campaign ads boasting of how this president or that governor “created” millions of new jobs or is responsible for whatever economic growth has occurred during his or her term of office. Such claims are on a moral and intellectual par with my claim that I deserve credit for not killing pedestrians with my car.

No politician creates prosperity. It is created by countless entrepreneurs, businesses and workers competing and cooperating within markets. For government to avoid obstructing these markets is indeed desirable — but it does not create the resulting prosperity. 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.

Whenever that rarest of creatures — an honorable politician — manages to loosen some part of government’s grip on us, he deserves acclaim. Even he, however, doesn’t deserve credit for whatever economic growth and cultural flourishing follow. Such credit properly belongs to the many persons who create, innovate, take risks, save and work 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 deification of government. When deified, government is mistakenly seen as responsible for all good that happens in society — with all bad things being blamed on devils who, of course, must be banished by government.

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. Here’s an example. Economist Warren Samuels writes that deregulation is simply government regulation carried out by enforcing private property rights rather than by enforcing bureaucratic edicts. According to Samuels, only the unsophisticated believe that when government deregulates it thereby reduces its sway over the economy.

Or consider Louis Hacker’s insistence 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 plowing my car through a sidewalk crowded with pedestrians, can affect events just as significantly as if I do use my car to kill pedestrians.

Only in the most base materialist sense are Samuels and Hacker correct: Insofar as government possesses power to restrict commerce, any self-restraint by government 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. So if the actual amount of destruction caused by government falls short of what government could have caused, government is credited with producing all that it refrained from destroying. Using such a benchmark, of course, 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?

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 innocent people’s lives.

Until someone convinces me that I deserve a ticker-tape parade every time 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.