It's a Statist Life

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by D. Saul Weiner by D. Saul Weiner

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The perennial problem for those who favor limited government is that those who have come to rely on agencies of the state believe that those functions would wither or die if left up to the free market. As Bastiat put it,

"… every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain." (From The Law, published in 1850; see the section titled “A Confusion of Terms.")

We can point to times when each of the functions was handled and worked better when operating through the free market. But yet it is always difficult to convey to others the true impact of State intervention, to demonstrate as Bastiat described in his famous essay, "What is Seen and What is Not Seen." Perhaps modern technology can be of assistance here, in the form of a movie which showed people what life would be like if there were less State intervention. As a precedent for such an undertaking, consider the plot of the classic Christmas movie "It's a Wonderful Life," directed by Frank Capra. For those who have not seen it, consider bookmarking this page, watching the movie this month, and returning to this article. For those still here, the movie in essence shows the impact that the actions taken by one man, named George Bailey, had on all of society. In economic terms, we (and George) get to see the marginal impact of his entire life. The following is a synopsis of the movie as it pertains to this theme.

As the film begins, we hear the prayers of Bailey's wife, daughter, and friends. George is in trouble and needs help. George is contemplating jumping off a bridge and ending it all after coming to seeming financial ruin. An angel named Clarence, who has not yet earned his wings, is summoned to help George. He is shown various scenes from George's past. As a boy, George dreams of seeing the world, making lots of money, and building great things. George saves his brother Harry at age 9 who has fallen through thin ice. Harry goes on to become a war hero. In his job at the pharmacy, he sees that the druggist (Gower), who is distraught about his son's recent death and has been drinking, has inadvertently put poison in a prescription for a sick boy and so he decides not to deliver it. Bailey marries his childhood sweetheart Mary.

Despite wanting to travel abroad, go to college, and leave his small town, George decides to take over running the Building & Loan after his father dies. He arranges financing for affordable homes in his community. When his partner Uncle Billy loses a large sum of money meant for deposit at the bank, he is threatened with bankruptcy and maybe even prison time. When Clarence arrives, George tells him that everyone would be better off if he were dead; in fact, he wishes that he had never been born. Clarence grants him his wish and lets him see what life would have been like without him. This is what he discovers:

His brother dies at age 9. Those he went on to save during the war were also killed. His wife is an "old maid" who works at the library. Mr. Gower is a homeless old man who is shunned after spending 20 years in prison for poisoning a kid. The new housing development (Bailey Park) never gets built and residents live in squalor. His town degenerates. The Building & Loan goes out of business and Uncle Billy is put in an "insane asylum." After seeing all this, George appreciates the true impact of his life and wants to live again. Clarence observes, "A man's life touches so many others; when he isn't around it leaves an awful hole." He is enthusiastically welcomed back by friends and family, who have taken up a collection on his behalf. And Clarence earns his wings!

In our new movie, our main character is a political operative — let's call him Sam. He has been a mover and shaker in politics for many years, but he finds himself and his allies in trouble after word leaks out about one of his shady, backroom deals. He and the others are likely to be thrown in jail for a long time. He returns to his hometown. His cronies see that he is despondent and pray that he can pull himself together and maneuver in such a way as to get them out of trouble. An angel named Frederic, who has not yet earned his wings, is summoned to help Sam. As he is about to jump off a bridge, Frederic arrives and talks to him. Sam describes his troubles and says that he wishes he were never born; Frederic grants him his wish, though Sam does not realize what has just transpired. He decides to return to town to try to sort things out. He runs into a neighborhood kid whom he had drafted while serving as the head of the local draft board. He is shocked, as this kid had been killed in battle. But the man insists that he was never drafted and is now a successful businessman and community leader. Sam meets his fine wife and children too and is left speechless. He scratches his head and decides to move on; perhaps a good walk will clear his head. Before long though, he is taken aback when he runs into another familiar young man. He was sure this fellow had received a long prison sentence for drug offenses, under the tough mandatory sentencing guidelines he had successfully lobbied for. Yet this guy tells Sam that he never went to jail, is now clean, and is helping to rehabilitate others who are trying to overcome their dependency. Now he is sure that he is losing his mind, but continues on, in a daze. Is someone playing a cruel hoax on him? This is all just too much. He wonders if anything could top what he has just seen. A moment later he runs into his old high school sweetheart who had died many years earlier of cancer. Now he is certain that he has lost his mind. He distinctly recalled her story; she had died after unsuccessfully trying to gain access to a promising experimental cancer treatment. In fact, the man he helped get appointed commissioner at the FDA had declared the treatment illegal. Yet she goes on to tell him that she had in fact used that experimental treatment, was now cured and was working hard to spread the word about this miraculous treatment to other cancer patients. Stunned, he decides to walk to the military base down the road and check in with some buddies there. Maybe they will tell him what is going on and bring him back to his senses. Yet when he comes to his destination, there is no military base there. There is no munitions plant nearby either. He had successfully lobbied for funding for both of these though! What is more, there are all sorts of unfamiliar sights in their place — parks, theaters, historical sites, businesses, and a myriad of other developments. Not only that, as he stops to take it all in, the whole town is unmistakably more prosperous and cohesive than he had remembered it. By this point, Sam has returned to the bridge and it finally dawns on him that Frederic had indeed granted him his wish and that what he had just seen was the impact of his never having been born! He realizes that he has made life worse for so many in a number of different ways. He is more despondent than ever. He asks Frederic if he has anything to say to him, hoping to hear something, anything uplifting. As much as Frederic would like to do so, he is honor-bound to tell Sam the truth. But what can he say? Suddenly he recalls Clarence's wise words and decides to paraphrase them, "The State touches so many lives; when it isn't around, it leaves a whole lot of freedom." That is the last straw and Sam jumps off the bridge, never to be seen again. And Frederic earns his wings!

D. Saul Weiner [send him mail] is excited to be playing a small part in the transcendent venture known as the Ron Paul Revolution.

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