Will, Powell and the Spoils System

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In
his syndicated column last Sunday, George Will berated Colin Powell
for comparing affirmative action to lobbying for tax loopholes and
other forms of corporate welfare. Said Will: “[Powell spoke] as
though there is no moral distinction between the normal, if sometimes
tawdry, bartering of favors among factions that is a universal transaction
cost of democracy, and the allocation of entitlements based on race.”

Well,
Mr. Will, who even knew that democracy was a transaction? But I
was puzzled by Will’s statement on a deeper level as well. Once
we accept that government has a legitimate role in divvying out
economic favors among its citizens, on what basis do we make a moral
distinction that declares some favors “normal if tawdry” and others
just plain unacceptable? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that,
for many people, it is precisely those interventions that will favor
their interests that they will declare normal, and those from which
they don’t feel that they can benefit that they will regard as being
beyond the pale.

Our
governments, at all levels, repeatedly intervene in the economy
to favor the interests of some citizens at the expense of others.
Import barriers favor autoworkers at the expense of consumers of
cars. Farm price supports favor farmers at the expense of everyone
else who eats. Minimum wage laws favor skilled workers at the expense
of unskilled workers.

The
people who support such measures often argue that they are motivated
by more than economics. “Our skilled factory workers are the pride
of America,” they say. “The family farm is the backbone of this
country.” These things, they claim, are worth supporting even if
they lose money.

Notice
that their goals might be achieved through purely voluntary means.
Those who believe in supporting the American farm can, for instance,
form a buyers’ cooperative to buy American farm products, even if
they are more expensive. The problem with this, from the point of
view of those who are promoting these agendas, is that then they
would have to pay the entire cost for things that they want. They
would much rather have you pay at least part of the cost, as well.

When
someone says, “An issue as important as this shouldn’t be decided
on merely economic grounds,” the best thing to do is watch your
wallet. What they really mean is that they hope you don’t think
too much about the economics of this issue, because they are preparing
to use the threat of state violence to get you to pay for something
that they want.

Let
us imagine the town of Bachsville. Bachsville has 100 adults living
in it. Fifty-one of them love the music of the old master, J.S.
Bach. The other 49 are indifferent to it.

The
51 who love Bach organize a “Bach Society,” and sponsor a yearly
Bach festival in town. Since ticket sales don’t cover the full costs,
these Bach lovers cover the difference through society dues.

However,
one day, it occurs to the Bach lovers that they are spending more
than they must. After all, they are a majority in the town! They
conduct a referendum as to whether the town should cover the costs
of the Bach festival that are not covered by the ticket costs. The
referendum passes, 51-49.

What
these people have done is to use the threat of government violence
to mug their fellow citizens. They have a personal preference for
hearing live performances of Bach in their town, and they have figured
out a way to force those who do not share in this preference to
pony up anyway.

Of
course, they can’t describe what they have done in quite such bald
terms. Instead, they will spout platitudes. “Music stirs the human
soul,” they will say. “The community can be improved through the
promotion of shared values.” “The people in a community have the
right to shape what sort of community they wish to live in.”

Who
could argue with any of these points? But none of them speak to
the issue at hand. “Music stirs the human soul, so therefore I can
use the threat of violence to force you to pay for some music I
like,” is a more accurate statement of their position.. Or: “The
community can be improved through the promotion of shared values,
and I intend to promote my values by extracting some money from
you.” Or: “The people in a community have the right to shape what
sort of community they wish to live in, and the right to squeeze
money out of anyone who wasn’t aware that they had moved to a Bachophile
town.”

Of
course, in the long run, the joke is on those who feel they will
gain by these tactics. While they may be in the most powerful lobby
on one issue, they will surely lose on others. We all wind up employing
government to mug each other, again and again, never noticing that
it is only the mugger, who keeps pulling a percentage off of the
top, who gains in the end.

So,
Mr. Will, I’m afraid I really don’t see the great moral distinction
you mention. If government is a tool for us to extract money from
our unwilling fellow citizens, why shouldn’t each of us cobble together
whatever lobby will get us our biggest share? If it’s “normal” for
farmers to demand that their occupation be subsidized and giant
corporations to have their overseas marketing paid for partly by
the rest of us, why shouldn’t blacks form a lobby to get their share
as well?

Of
course, General Powell is wrong as well, for surely, for the future
of our country, the solution is not for everyone to jump in this
game in whatever fashion they can, but, rather, to stop the game.

August
10, 2000

Gene
Callahan is a regular contributor to mises.org.

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