Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on March 17, 2020

in Philosophy of Freedom, Regulation, Subsidies, Trade, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 3 of the original edition of James M. Buchanan’s 1960 textbook, The Public Finances (a volume not included in Buchanan’s Collected Works); the following two sentences are the opening lines of this book’s Chapter 1:

Few people enjoy being governed; almost everyone enjoys governing. This paradox in human emotions explains many of the problems that arise in any society concerning the functions and purposes of government.

DBx: Toward the end of his long life – a life that began in 1919 and ended in 2013 – Jim modified, at least on the surface, the first part of the above claim. In much of his final work, done post-9/11, Jim expressed the believe that many people actually want to be ordered about by the state. Jim lamented this fact, but he always did his best to work with reality as he understood it to be and not as he wished it would be.

Nevertheless, the deeper truth of the above observation – one made when the occupant of the Oval Office was Dwight Eisenhower – remains. Each of us as individuals would like to be exempted from many of the rules to which each of us wishes all others to be bound. Every person understands that rules that carve out spaces for the exercise of individual autonomy and freedom of choice prevent each of us from violating each other’s space. And many of us understand also – or believe that we do – that such rules better ensure peace and prosperity.

Such understanding reflects the higher part of human intelligence. But the more primal parts of our brains incite each of us to want something for nothing – for me, at a deep level, to crave others to toil for my benefit and for me to avoid doing anything in return. The same, I assure you, is true for you, whoever you are. Yet in a civilized and liberal society, most of us are socialized to be ashamed of this primal craving. And so we – most of us – consciously think of ourselves as not wishing to live at others’ expense.

I’m thankful for such socialization in me and in most other denizens of liberal society.

The state, however, is an organization that permits those of us so socialized to live at the expense of others while fooled by the fiction that we don’t do so. To the state we grant the authority to violate the rights of others – rights-violations that we would immediately recognize as such were we to perform these rights-violations privately.

Examples of such rights-violations abound. They include protective tariffs, government-granted subsidies, occupational-licensing restrictions, minimum-wage commands, and most so-called “regulation” – from land-use restrictions to the many diktats that burden financial markets. Peel away the fine-sounding justifications for these state interventions and you find that each of them enables some identifiable group of people to gain from the toil or justly earned treasure of others without having to reciprocate.

Protective tariffs allow some domestic producers to extract, rather than earn, gains from consumers. Minimum-wage legislation allows higher-skilled workers, as well as firms that use disproportionately large amounts of high-skilled labor relative to low-skilled labor, to benefit at the expense of low-skilled labor and at the expense of firms that use disproportionately small amounts of high-skilled labor relative to low-skilled labor. And so this primal pattern continues for much of what is presented in modern textbooks as “public policy.”

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