Democracy, the God That Mugged Me*

by Gene Callahan

But with the construction of the Merrit Parkway and, later, I-95, travel was easier between Weston and New York. The suburbs expanded. Weston, with a good deal of open land and attractive natural scenery, gradually became a "bedroom community."

The demographics of the town changed significantly through the decades after WWII. The old-time residents had not, for the most part, been wealthy. Some of them fit into the colloquial classification, "Swamp Yankee," essentially the local equivalent of "hillbilly." In the 50s and 60s, a wave of modest new ranch homes and colonials were built, the buyers of which were members of the "comfortable middle class." But as Westport, the wealthy town to the south of Weston, filled up, people looking for an extensive country home on several acres began to move north. The town increasingly attracted corporate executives, stock traders, and so on, from the top one or two percent of income earners in America. By 2000, Weston was one of the wealthiest towns in the wealthiest state in the country, with a median household income approaching $150,000 per year and median house prices in the upper-six-figure range.

The purpose of my historical digression is to make the point that the most recent arrivals are generally wealthier than the people who moved in 40 or 50 years ago, who are wealthier themselves than the descendants of the old-time residents who remain scattered around town. (There is one section of the town where one could, in fact, imagine one was in a poor section of Appalachia.) And the newcomers have the younger families, the ones with school-age children, for the most part.

Weston has one of the top public school systems in the state. (Damning with faint praise, I know!) The average SAT scores are 557/553, as opposed to 503/499 for the state as a whole. On mastery tests in earlier grades, Weston students generally score ten to twenty percent above the state average. Spending per pupil is $10,973, as opposed to the state average of $8,300. And, interestingly for such a wealthy town, the percentage of students in the public system is higher than the state average (by 1.2 percent).

So, the children attending "our" public schools are hardly suffering from a sub-standard education, at least by public school standards. And, if they were, most of the residents could afford some form of private education.

However, last year, a coalition of parents and school officials decided that certain conditions in the schools were intolerable. (For instance, the septic system was reaching capacity, and some classes were held in temporary classrooms.) They began a campaign to rectify the problems, involving $80 million of new construction. (That’s right, $8000 per resident, or over $25,000 per household.) The plan they forwarded included a new auditorium, new athletic fields, a new gym, additional library space, and more. They lobbied hard for a new bond issue and, over strenuous opposition — chiefly from the "empty nesters" — succeeded in getting it passed in November.

It is illuminating, I think, to look at what transpired by comparing the commonly held, Never-Never Land theories of democracy against its gritty reality. Democracy is often defended as a way of taming the "excesses" of the market system. It is said it gives those with less wealth a greater say in the structuring of society than they would have had in an unhampered market. But in our story, the people with more wealth conspired to extract a large amount of money from those with less. It is not an uncommon plotline. The nine decades that the Federal Reserve System has systematically transferred money from middle-class savers to wealthy bankers is ongoing testimony to the prevalence of such arrangements. Given that there are often reasons that the wealthy have their money, and that the reasons often involve talent and intelligence, it’s not surprising that the wealthy are also adept at politics, if they put their mind to it.

As you might guess from the fact that I write for, I am not a fan of schemes forcibly redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. But I think that at least some of the people recommending such schemes are acting from a charitable, if misguided, motivation. (Their primary mistake is that they believe it somehow charitable to force other people to help the poor.) No such motivation moved the people backing the new bond issue. However inadequate egalitarianism is as an excuse for redistributive schemes, the excuse was absent from our bond referendum. What took place was a simple mugging, disguised only by a thin veneer of "democratic process."

I will take my family as an example, not because the focus of my interest in the bond issue is its impact on me, but because I’m fairly familiar with most of its members. (Indeed, I only became dully aware of the referendum itself about a week before it occurred, and really couldn’t be bothered to investigate more. But once I saw it held theoretical interest, well, that was a different matter.) In any case, we are attempting to home school our children. While my family is hardly poor, we could not afford an average home in most sections of our town. (Some of the "Swamp Yankees" live within a few blocks of us.) We sometimes feel the pinch of the combination of time off from work and private classes needed to implement our home-schooling plans. But many of our wealthier neighbors feel it is acceptable to vote to raise our taxes so that their children may have better school facilities.

The people working to pass the new bond issue could have, for the most part, simply bought their children whatever instruction, extra-curricular activities, and so on, that they felt was lacking in the public schools. If the wealthy "Yes" voters wanted to ensure that not only their children, but also those of poor families, had access to the new opportunities, they could have done so. There are very few people in Weston whom one might consider poor. Only 76 households are officially regarded as living in poverty (and presumably many of them are made up of elderly people with no school-age children or single people renting a room in town). Those who wanted to help the few poor children could have launched a charitable drive to fund need-based vouchers for extra-curricular activities. They could have taken their own children out of the public schools, which, since they would continue to pay taxes, would increase the funding and space available for the poorer students. They could have tried to raise the funds for the whole $80 million dollar project through voluntary contributions.

But deluded by an ideology that holds that almost anything is justified, if only you have enough votes, they instead made the choice to extract the money by force from their unwilling neighbors. As one local pundit put it after the referendum passed, "Full speed ahead on doing the will of the majority…" And full speed ahead on picking the pockets of the minority, we might add.

* My apologies to Professor Hoppe for mangling the title of his book, Democracy, the God That Failed.

April 1, 2002

2002, Gene Callahan

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