Sunday, October 8, 2017

When Egalitarianism Strikes

Sometimes, it is important to take a step back from the issues pertaining to our daily work to save Wyoming from its tax-and-spend activists. Our focus must always be on the threat of higher taxes, and the detriments of frivolous government spending, but there is also a broader discussion we must sometimes delve into. This is a discussion of ideas and political and economic theory, the ideas that ultimately help us set course for the horizon, to aim for the kind of country and society we really want.

One of the essential questions at that level is about the proper role of government.
While hardly new, but tracing its roots back to the late 1600s, this issue is as alive today as it was back then. I am not going to make this article a pitch for my new book, but before we move on I just want to note that this key question can be boiled down to exactly the one I ask in The Rise of Big Government: How Egalitarianism Conquered America, namely:

Should government engage in economic redistribution?

The philosophical answer to that question is no. Government never has the moral right to take from one citizen and give to another. This fundamental principle, crisp and simple as it is, provides a clear point on the horizon, which we can strive for and hope to reach one day.

The answer based on economic theory is equally negative. There is no literature that shows any positive contributions by government, above the minimal-state level. Once government is the protector of life, liberty and property, her positive contributions to society are filled.*

From a practical viewpoint, the question about economic redistribution becomes more complicated. We have a welfare state, a big one, that is deeply entrenched in society and our economy. To terminate it today - or even over a couple of years - would cause enormous harm to countless people whose lives have become dependent on tax-paid entitlements. The work to unwind the welfare state is complicated and must take time. It may take decades before the welfare state has been phased out and our government returned to its functions within the limits of the minimal state.

It is wise to accept that reforming away the welfare state will take time. However, it is equally wise to accept that we must begin that journey. If we don't; if we let political obstacles and systemic complexities get in the way of sound, necessary reforms to entitlements (including public education), then we will remain where we are today: on the sun deck of the S/S Welfare State as she steams straight for the iceberg.

For every turn we redistribute resources, we create a new group of entitled people; for every new redistributive right we create, we pile on a new set of demands from those to whom entitlements have been assigned. 

The bigger the pile gets, the farther we push the entitled population from any sense of achievement and productive participation. The stronger the sense of "being owed", the weaker the sense of personal responsibility. 

Once a society has lowered its economy deep enough into this egalitarian abyss, its ability to remain productive and reproduce, let alone grow, its prosperity will eventually be lost. This has already happened to Sweden, my country of birth, and to most other countries in Europe. We are now at risk of letting this happen to America; we are at risk of raising an entire generation whose entitlement mentality overshadows their work ethic, whose belief that they are owed something for free defines their very existence in social and economic contexts. 

It is not hard to find examples of what this leads to, but rarely do I come across such a blatant display of over-indulgence in entitlement as the following video from University of California, Berkeley. This video is interesting not because of the subject matter - students protesting an exam they allege is racist - but because of the context. These are privileged students, who have been admitted to one of the nation's top 20 universities; they are in a class that does not require much work (more on that in a moment) and the exam they are about to take was scheduled and made predictable by the professor. Despite this context, they still raise the entitlement bar by demanding an even higher level of privilege from the professor. 

What matters in this video is neither the subject matter itself, nor the ethnic background of anyone involved, student or professor. What matters is the entitlement mentality that these students display:

These four students are faced with a work-ethic related assignment: a test that they have been given time to prepare for and for which they have been given all the conditions (literature, classes, the scope of the midterm). Yet despite this they put on full display a sense of outrage that they are not given more than they already have. 

Perhaps it would be understandable that these students protested a surprise midterm in mathematics, physics, engineering, chemistry, medicine, law, economics, business, political theory or even history. After all, in these subjects students actually have to work hard to achieve something. Overwhelmed college kids sometimes simply reach a point where they have had enough. But when they do, given that they have the right kind of work ethic and are not driven by an entitlement mentality, they will make it a personal issue between them and the professor.

Just like an overworked employee will come to his or her boss and explain that the current workload simply is too much right now. 

The problem is that this was not a surprise exam. More importantly, these students are not in a hard-science class, or a class that requires systemic insight or the command of large, complex reasoning and advanced theory. These students are asked to take a midterm in an "education" class, i.e., a class that only requires modest reasoning skills and gives students ample opportunities to blabber their way to a good grade. (It does not get better by the fact that the professor apparently does not have a doctor's degree, only a bachelor.)

Given the low level of requirements placed before these students, their sense of entitlement is astounding. 

And troubling. 

So long as a sense of responsibility overshadows any inclination of entitlement in our society, we are still on the right track. But once the opposite is true; once the sense of being owed supersedes the sense of being responsible; as is clearly the case with the students in this video; then our society and our economy is in deep trouble.

From a systemic viewpoint - looking at our country, our society and our economy from a 30,000 foot perspective - our society is being transformed from a bastion of self determination into yet another egalitarian welfare state. This transformation is driven by policies that were put in place half a century ago, but still to this date continues to spread its ideological tentacles deeper and deeper into our nation's heart and soul.

We have to make a choice, and soon. We have to decide whether we want an economy of entitled demanders or of responsible providers. We have to decide if we want a society where entitlements are never enough, or a society where preparedness and hard work meet opportunity and freedom. 

The choice begins here, and now. It is not some abstract fight, taking place somewhere on the internet. This is a tangible choice, before us in our everyday lives. We have a government, federal as well as state, that steadily continues to find new groups of entitled citizens. Whether parents with children or businesses receiving corporate welfare, government expands the sense of entitlement to increasingly broad constituencies. 

Government distorts, disrupts and eventually destroys free society by continuously reaching deeper and deeper into the pockets of productive citizens.

As more people demand more privileges, more entitlements, more accommodations, fewer and fewer are left who can provide for all those entitlements. Eventually - and soon - we reach a point where those who provide start withdrawing from the economy. That point, which Europe has already reached, is the point of no return. Once we pass it, we will hand over a country to our children where poverty, not prosperity, is reaching farther and deeper for every generation.

The time to choose is now.
*) Some would argue that government has an economic role to fill in providing public goods. I am willing to accept that argument, on some conditions. However, the provision of public goods does not have to be redistributive in nature, so in some ways this is a moot point.

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