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The Right’s Unnecessary Civil War


There is an ongoing battle today between conservatives who want to use government’s power to enforce morality and libertarians. The former believe that the nation’s moral decay is a product of classical liberal policies that allowed or even encouraged immorality. It is not. It is a product of a half century of expanding government policies dedicated to ameliorating pain.

My father-in-law worked with patients suffering from Hansen’s Disease – leprosy. One of the terrible symptoms of the disease is that people lose their sense of feeling. We tend to think of pain as an enemy, but, as my father-in-law observed, pain is “the best friend no one wants.” Imagine putting your hand on a hot stove and not realizing it until you smell your flesh burning. We need feedback mechanisms to keep us alive and in one piece.

Government can create a sort of moral leprosy by weakening or even destroying the feedback loops that make it possible for people to know when their actions are destructive or self-destructive. People learn by acting and then observing and bearing the consequences of their actions.

 

Private Charity

Government-based welfare also helped to de-moral-ize society by shifting the locus of charitable giving and work away from local communities and toward Washington.

Marvin Olasky’s, The Tragedy of American Compassion, documents the tens of thousands of lodges, charities, mutual aid societies, missions, civic associations, and fraternal organizations that existed across the country in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  These organizations helped pull people out of poverty by addressing individual causes – ignorance, addiction, or simply bad luck.  Thanks to the power of the free market and organizations like these, the poverty rate plummeted from 80% of the population in 1800, to about 15% in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, the government stepped in with its “Great Society” programs and displaced private charitable organizations.  After nearly 60 years of effort and trillions of dollars in spending, the poverty rate has dropped only a few more percentage points. The government is very good at writing checks, but while that helps to make the poor more comfortable in their poverty, it does little to address the unique issues that keep them in poverty. That takes compassion. Real compassion isn’t feeling pity for the less fortunate, it’s climbing into the foxhole with them and sharing and understanding their individual problems.

Central planning proponents often admit that free markets deliver the goods but argue that governments distribute them more fairly. They point to people who, because of age or disability, are incapable of producing anything. The government must control the economy, they claim, so that it can redistribute goods to these few.

But rewarding need yields more of it, adding those who will not produce to those who cannot. And taxing demonstrated ability yields less ability demonstrated. By taking from each according to his ability and giving to each according to his need, government produces more need. By contrast, under the free market, need does not pay, production does, so need declines and production grows.

The choice between government control and the free market is the choice between government coercively combating growing need amid growing poverty and individuals voluntarily combatting shrinking need amid growing wealth.

 

Conclusion

When they are allowed to work, free markets reward the “bourgeois values” of thrift, honesty, persistence, hard work, prudence, tolerance, and civility. At the same time, markets punish profligacy, dishonesty, sloth, and bigotry.

The solution is not to add more layers of government control – layers that can be used and misused by the next set of politicians elected to office – but to restore freedom.

 


Richard Fulmer worked as a mechanical engineer and a systems analyst in industry. He is now retired and does free-lance writing. He has published some fifty articles and book reviews in free market magazines and blogs. With Robert L. Bradley Jr., Richard wrote the book, Energy: The Master Resource.

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