Evil Concealed By Money
by Walter E. Williams

Evil acts can be given an aura of moral legitimacy by noble-sounding socialistic expressions such as spreading the wealth, income redistribution or caring for the less fortunate. Let’s think about socialism.

Imagine there’s an elderly widow down the street from you. She has neither the strength to mow her lawn nor enough money to hire someone to do it. Here’s my question to you that I’m almost afraid for the answer: Would you support a government mandate that forces one of your neighbors to mow the lady’s lawn each week? If he failed to follow the government orders, would you approve of some kind of punishment ranging from house arrest and fines to imprisonment? I’m hoping that the average American would condemn such a government mandate because it would be a form of slavery, the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another.

Would there be the same condemnation if instead of the government forcing your neighbor to physically mow the widow’s lawn, the government forced him to give the lady $40 of his weekly earnings? That way the widow could hire someone to mow her lawn. I’d say that there is little difference between the mandates. While the mandate’s mechanism differs, it is nonetheless the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another.

Probably most Americans would have a clearer conscience if all the neighbors were forced to put money in a government pot and a government agency would send the widow a weekly sum of $40 to hire someone to mow her lawn. This mechanism makes the particular victim invisible but it still boils down to one person being forcibly used to serve the purposes of another. Putting the money into a government pot makes palatable acts that would otherwise be deemed morally offensive.

This is why socialism is evil. It employs evil means, coercion or taking the property of one person, to accomplish good ends, helping one’s fellow man. Helping one’s fellow man in need, by reaching into one’s own pockets, is a laudable and praiseworthy goal. Doing the same through coercion and reaching into another’s pockets has no redeeming features and is worthy of condemnation.

Some people might contend that we are a democracy where the majority agrees to the forcible use of one person for the good of another. But does a majority consensus confer morality to an act that would otherwise be deemed as immoral? In other words, if a majority of the widow’s neighbors voted to force one neighbor to mow her law, would that make it moral?

I don’t believe any moral case can be made for the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another. But that conclusion is not nearly as important as the fact that so many of my fellow Americans give wide support to using people. I would like to think it is because they haven’t considered that more than $2 trillion of the over $3 trillion federal budget represents Americans using one another. Of course, they might consider it compensatory justice. For example, one American might think, “Farmers get Congress to use me to serve the needs of some farmers. I’m going to get Congress to use someone else to serve my needs by subsidizing my child’s college education.”

The bottom line is that we’ve become a nation of thieves, a value rejected by our founders. James Madison, the father of our Constitution, was horrified when Congress appropriated $15,000 to help French refugees. He said, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” Tragically, today’s Americans would run Madison out of town on a rail.

Political Cartoon by Robert Arial

Don’t Get Depressed, It’s Not 1929

Instead of out-of-work men asking, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ we have executives asking Congress if it can spare $100 billion.

It’s difficult to avoid the ubiquitous comparisons between the current sad state of financial affairs and the Great Depression. “This is not like 1987 or 1998 or 2001,” Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain said at a conference on Nov. 11. “We will in fact look back to the 1929 period to see the kind of slowdown we are seeing now.” A newsweekly that is a loathed rival worthy competitor depicted President-elect Barack Obama on its cover as the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And in Washington, the buzz is all about what the new team will do in its first 100 days. What’s next? Show trials in Moscow?

All this historically inaccurate nostalgia can occasionally make you want to clock somebody with one of the three volumes of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s New Deal history. The Credit Debacle of 2008 and the Great Depression may have similar origins: both got going when financial crisis led to a reduction in consumer demand. But the two phenomena differ substantially. Instead of workers with 5 o’clock shadows asking, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” we have clean-shaven financial-services executives asking congressmen if they can spare $100 billion. More substantively, the economic trauma the nation suffered in the 1930s makes today’s woes look like flesh wounds.

“By the afternoon of March 3, scarcely a bank in the country was open to do business,” FDR said in his March 12, 1933, fireside chat (now available on a very cool podcast at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation‘s Web site). In 1933 some 4,000 commercial banks failed, causing depositors to take huge losses. (There was no FDIC back then.) The recession that started in August 1929 lasted for a grinding 43 months, during which unemployment soared to 25 percent and national income was cut in half. By contrast, through mid-November of this year, only 19 banks had failed. The Federal Reserve last week said it expects unemployment to top out at 7.6 percent in 2009. Economists surveyed by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank believe the recession, which started in April 2008, will be over by next summer. (Of course, the same guys back in January forecast that the economy would grow nicely in 2008 and 2009.) But don’t take it from me. Take it from this year’s Nobel laureate in economics. “The world economy is not in depression,” Paul Krugman writes in his just-reissued book “The Return of Depression Economics.” “It probably won’t fall into depression, despite the magnitude of the current crisis (although I wish I was completely sure about that).”

So what’s with all the speakeasy-era speak? Financial executives invoke distant history in part to make up for their own recent shortcomings. If a force as powerful as the Great Depression has been unleashed on the global economy, how can a mere mortal like Merrill’s John Thain be held responsible? The specter of the 1930s has also been deployed by political leaders to create a sense of urgency. “We saw a lot of overblown analogies in the run-up to the passage of the bailout bill,” notes Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.President Bush’s Sept. 24 address to the nation warned that “the entire economy is in danger,” and that “without immediate action by Congress, America could slip into a financial panic, and a distressing scenario would unfold.”

It’s understandable that we make comparisons to the Great Depression. Analogies help us place things in context. But very few of us actually lived through the Depression. Studs Terkel, the great chronicler of the voices of the Depression, died in October at 96. The historical distance from today to 1929 is as vast as the chasm separating 1929 from 1850. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University and author of “Predictably Irrational,” says, “The closer we are to something— an event, a person, an object—the more nuances we see.” By contrast, the farther away we are, the greater (and less accurate) the generalizations we make. And so when comparisons to the Great Depression are flashed on cable-news crawls, “it’s all about the desire to fit everything into a snapshot,” Ariely says.

Ironically, the differences between the two eras can be summed up in a few sound bites. The world of 1929–33 was one that lacked shock absorbers, like Social Security and deposit insurance, to insulate people from economic disaster. In the 1930s, some of the world’s largest economies—Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan and Italy—were run by leaders hostile to the very notion of market capitalism. Today, U.S.-style market capitalism is under assault from self-inflicted wounds, and Germany, Italy and Japan (Russia, not so much) are working with the United States to cope with a common problem. Back then, we were cursed with a feckless Federal Reserve, and a wealthy Treasury secretary, Paul Mellon, saw the downturn as a force for good. “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” he said. “People will work harder, live more moral lives.” By contrast, today’s Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, is a student of the Great Depression, and the wealthy Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, wants to provide liquidity to stocks, farmers and real estate. (To labor, not so much.) A final difference: after the 1929 crash, the nation had to wait more than three years for a president who simply wasn’t up to the job to leave the scene. This time, we’ve got to wait only a few more months.

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