Latest posts by Richard Ebeling (see all)
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Presidential election years, more than many others, focuses our attention on politics, those running for political office, and the promises the competing candidates make to sway our allegiance and votes toward one or some of them in comparison to others. They want us to give them political power by promising to use that power to benefit some of us in ways that can only come at the expense of others in society.
This fundamental truth about the reality of modern-day politics gets blurred in the hoopla of whose ahead in the public opinion polls, which candidate has the most charm or cunning, and what forms do their attacks on each other take.
We need to step back and look at things in terms of “first principles” if the entire process and its consequences are to be put into focus and perspective. Otherwise, we get lost in all the minutia of daily media news spins, and forget what it is really all about.
Political Means vs. Economic Means to Betterment
A little over a hundred years ago, the German sociologist, Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943), in his book, The State (1914), explained that there are fundamentally two ways to obtain the things you desire in society. What Oppenheimer called, “the political means” or the “economic means.” By the political means, he meant the use of political power and force to acquire from others what you want. By the economics means, Oppenheimer meant the use of peaceful methods of production, either through producing directly things you want and desire, or to obtain them through voluntarily and mutually agreed-upon trade and exchange.
Through history, Oppenheimer said, people had often used the political means. He suggested this has been the origin of governments. Roving bands of thieves and plunders would invade and conquer lands to seize the wealth of others. If they settled down to more permanently rule over and live off the productive efforts of those now under their coercive control, there would be born what today we call a “State.”
Oppenheimer’s analysis of the origin and nature of the State has been more recently developed by the noted economist, Mancur Olson (1932-1998). He, too, argued that the origin of the State could be seen in the replacement of roving bands of plundering thieves by stationary bandits who settle down to rule over a territory over a prolonged period.
The roving band cares nothing for what happens in the area it has looted and then moved on. But the stationary bandits who want to live off the conquered area permanently have to take into consideration the conditions and the incentives of their “subjects” if they are to keep producing and therefore creating something for the stationary bandits to plunder through taxation year-after-year.
Plundering Bandits and the Birth of the State
Thus, out of the taxes imposed, the stationary bandits must also, in their own self-interest, to some extent secure their subject’s property rights, enforce contracts, establish a judicial system to adjudicate their disputes, and even supply some “public goods,” such as roads and harbors to facilitate commerce.
Their goal is to extract the greatest amount of tax revenue for themselves at the least cost of respecting and enforcing the property rights of their subjects, but they must offer some degree of such security for their subjects. Otherwise, the incentives of their subjects to produce the wealth out of which their tax revenues come might be minimized or in the extreme fall to zero.
As Olson described in his book, Power and Prosperity (2000):
“A bandit leader with sufficient strength to control and hold a territory has an incentive to settle down, to wear a crown, and to become a public goods-providing autocrat.
“The bandit leader, if he is strong enough to hold a territory securely and monopolize theft there, has an encompassing interest in his domain. This encompassing interest leads him to limit and regularize the rate of theft and to spend some of the resources he controls on public goods that benefit his victims no less than himself.
“Since the settled bandit’s victims are for him a source of tax payments, he prohibits the murder and maiming of his subjects. Because stealing by his subjects, and the theft-averting behavior that it generates, reduces total income, the bandit does not allow theft by anyone but himself. He serves his interests by spending some of the resources he controls to deter crime among his subjects and to provide other public goods.”
The bandit leader, obviously, cannot control and rule completely on his own. Both the original conquest and the retaining of power to plunder his conquered subjects requires lieutenants and other loyal followers with whom he must share the booty to maintain his permanent position of, now, political ruler.
Lands and the conquered peoples living on them are distributed and given by the conquering chief as deserved spoils to those under his military command. These lands and the people living on them then provide sources of income for these followers to permanently live off along with their chieftain, who crowns himself “king,” often under asserted divine mandate to rule.
The Qualities of the Chieftain Ruler
The famous nineteenth century sociologist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), explained in his Principles of Sociology (1885) the behavioral qualities and characteristics most likely to be found in such chieftains who first ruled over roving tribes and then over political States with monopoly jurisdiction over the use of force within its territorial confines.
Spencer said that such qualities included physical strength to defeat challengers to their rule; mental and intellectual cunning to manipulate and have mastery over the other members of the tribe or group; and conquered and accumulated wealth through which loyalty and obedience may be bought and assured through the “benevolent largess” of the ruler to his supporters and selected subjects.
Often, Spencer went on, this was combined with the claim that the king and his descendants had been assigned to rule by higher supernatural authority, to which all must obey under the threat of both earthly and heavenly punishment.
With the rise of political democracy and the (classical) liberal ideal of individual liberty, the questions of who rules and how political positions of authority are filled, and for what purposes government power exists radically changed in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Democracy’s Turn from Protecting Liberty to Plunder
At first, representative democracy was viewed as a means to limit the arbitrary power of absolute kings and princes. It was insisted that they are, in fact, accountable to those over whom they ruled, and that “the people” – through their elected representatives – had the power to limit and even repeal edicts, decrees and demands of those kings and princes to seize their wealth and lands, unjustly imprison them, or in many other ways deny each individual’s right to his life, liberty and property.
The idea that kings ruled with absolute and unchallengeable power and authority was, however, slowly but surely replaced with the new notion that “the people” as a whole were the legitimate “sovereign” with absolute power and increasingly believed unlimited authority over their own affairs.
And surely since “the people” could never tyrannize themselves, the premise has become implicitly accepted that the government may do virtually anything it deems necessary and appropriate if it can be successfully portrayed as in the “interests” of the nation or the people as a whole. Or, increasingly, as a means and method to redress grievances and injustices committed against some in the past for which others in the present must do penance through a redistribution of their wealth or restraints on their own liberties and choices to provide some form of rebalance and restitution through regulation and redistribution for the unethical actions of earlier generations.
In this new setting the idea and ideal that government is a means to secure the rights and liberty of individuals against all abusive and tyrannical power, whether from one man or a majority of others in society, has been increasingly lost. Majorities and influential interest groups in coalitions to form working majorities are now the determiners of what government does and for whose benefit at others’ cost.
The Power-Lusting Qualities of Democratic Rulers
In the modern democratic milieu, political power and control is no longer acquired through brute conquest and violent usurpation, but through the method of running for political office.
It requires the successful candidate to persuade a sufficient number of voters so a majority may be formed of those casting their ballots on Election Day. The potential democratically elected political leader must combine a variety of behavioral qualities and characteristics.
He must possess communication skills to sway large numbers of individuals and groups to support him. He must be able to assure those whose support is he is trying to win that he “feels their pain,” understands their “grievance,” opposes the “social injustices” to which they have been a victim, and promises to assure them a “happy” and carefree life.
Or more simply, he must guarantee to those who can provide the needed campaign contributions that he will see to it that governmental rules, regulations, and redistributions are used in a way that they can more easily gain the market share, or desired profits, or positions in society that they cannot as easily obtain on a more open, free and competitive market.
In all this, he must be a master of “coalition building” to successfully bring together a sufficient number of diverse and sometimes divergent groups within a set of overlapping goals and interests that assure “a win” on polling day. He must rely upon many of the same behavioral characteristics that Spencer said the tribal chieftain had to possess, only they must take on different forms in the modern democratic setting.
Like the ancient chieftains distributing booty among his victorious followers, the modern democratic politician gains support and allegiance by plundering some in society for the benefit of others: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, ObamaCare, food stamps, “public” (i.e., government owned and/or subsidized) housing, government-funded schooling and scholarships or loans; regulations limiting competition, subsidizing companies or industries; imposing trade and tariff barriers, government jobs programs, government licensing of professions, occupations and trades, or “public works” projects . . . The list in modern democratic society is endless.
To undertake all of these tasks in the modern plunder State, the list of government bureaus, agencies and departments at the federal, state and local levels counts in the hundreds, each one manned with employees who incomes and positions are dependent on the rationales and reasons for the existence of the branch of government in which they work.
Over 22 million (!) people are employed by government at the federal, state or local level. And government expenditures at all levels combined – federal, state and local – absorb nearly 35 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product. That is, over one-third all the goods and services produced in the United States end up passing through the hands of those who control and direct government.
Liberty and the Economic Means to Betterment
Let us, now, briefly contrast what Franz Oppenheimer had called these “political means” to acquiring what you desire with the alternative “economic means.” As he expressed it, “I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’ for the satisfaction of needs.”
The economic means and methods of obtaining the goods and services one desires starts with the fundamental principle that individuals have a moral right not to be plundered, that they have a right to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property. Neither private nor politically organized bandits and chieftains have the moral right to deny the individual the fruits of his labor.
The farmer who settles on a previously unclaimed and unowned piece of land meets his needs and desires for survival by clearing the field, planting the seeds, and tending the crop until he brings it to harvest. He harms no one and serves his own consumption desires through his own production with the resources at his disposal.
If he finds that he has grown more of some crops than he needs or wants for his own use, he may approach a neighbor who finds himself in a similar situation after growing and harvesting other types of foods. They may find that each of them can be better off by trading some of what they have, respectively, produced on their own farm for some of the output of the other.
Each will, now, be better off; neither will have harmed or violated the rights of the other; and their mutual well-being will have been increased through peaceful production and trade instead of force and plunder.
This simple and elementary example, seemingly so far from how many of us personally go about earning a living, in fact, captures the essence and reality of the “economic means” of human improvement.
In our modern complex system of division of labor, in which we participate in a now global network of trade and mutual interdependency may make this elementary truth sometimes difficult to see and remember, but that remains its essence to the extent that production, trade and competition in the marketplace is left at least fairly free of the plundering hands of governments.
The political debates and disputes among the candidates offering themselves this year for the presidency of the United States are mostly, and in some cases seemingly exclusively, offers of grab bags of political plunder to those whose support they need so they can make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as their “public housing” residence for the next four years in Washington, D.C.
What Liberty Means and Requires of Each of Us
Virtually no candidate is consistently and persistently offering the vision of a free America in which the political-plunder means of wealth acquisition is to be repealed and the individual liberty-based economic means to betterment is offered as an achievable and desirable ideal.
Of course, this requires, most of all, reminding people what a system and society of liberty means and requires:
Liberty means the right of the individual to live his life as he chooses, guided by his own values and beliefs about what will give him happiness and meaning to his life.
Liberty means respect for the equal rights of others to live their lives as they choose and desire.
Liberty means that human relationships should be based on peaceful and voluntary consent.
Liberty means that each individual’s honestly acquired property and income is respected as rightfully his, and may not be plundered and taxed away by others, even when majorities think some minority has not paid some supposed “fair share.”
Liberty means the free, competitive interaction of people in the marketplace of goods and ideas, out of which comes the creative and innovative energies of mind and effort that bring about rising standards of living for all.
Liberty means a limited government, a government whose purpose is to protect each individual in his freedom and peaceful market and social affairs, and is not to be an agency for political oppression or economic favoritism through special privileges and benefits that are given to some at the expense of others in society.
These are not easy rules and ideals to live by, but they are what America was founded on, and which made America great – a land with both freedom and prosperity.