Sowing and Reaping: The True Sickness of Society

There has been much moaning, even before the Arizona shooting incident, about why “we” cannot be civil in our political discussions and why political parties cannot work together for the common good.

Most of this is pure logorrhea.

There are some simple facts the commentators cannot or will not face. The reason we cannot have a coherent, comprehensive plan to solve the political and economic difficulties of the federal government (and of the state governments) is that people do not have a coherent, comprehensive hierarchy of values beyond the basics of social order. Hayek made this argument in The Road to Serfdom with regard to the problems of comprehensive economic planning.

To a large extent, we are now facing this problem in reverse. We have attained the current level and extent of the welfare state as an accretion of special interest legislation and short-sighted but popular redistribution programs. All of this took place over a long period of time with little or no thought to the overall effects, to what kind of society we have been building.

But now the threatened fiscal messes at both the federal and state level are requiring some form of “orderly” reduction in the size and scope of government. But, as I opined here in the final days of the Bush Administration, the “reform” of the welfare state will not be orderly. It will be driven by a war among the various interests groups who, as is their habit, do not see the other person’s point of view. But why should they? They got their largesse from the government by being single-minded and self-interested. Bad habits (from the social perspective) are hard to break.

The “unreasonableness” of the discussion stems from the fact that there is no underlying objective code of values (or at least not one that can be accessed by the political system). Most players are guilty of avidity and partiality. We all have hard-luck stories to portray to the media. Most people’s minds are too concrete-bound to see the larger, somewhat abstract, picture.

The unreasonableness, or so it seems, of our political culture is, to a large extent, a product of the kind of special interest redistributionist society we have built. Some commentators have rationalized the welfare state in terms of notions of distributive justice. But these are the mental spinnings of academics. These ideas have not been the driving political and economic forces that have created our culture. Those forces are derived from an abandonment of the traditional concept of the “common good,” that is, the good of each and all.

There is very little beyond the minimal state that is truly in the interests of all of us. Every movement beyond that takes us into the unreasonable territory of the exploitation of one group by another. No wonder discussion is not civil.

Whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.

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About Mario Rizzo 75 Articles

Affiliation: New York University

Dr. Mario J. Rizzo is associate professor of economics and co-director of the Austrian Economics Program at New York University. He was also a fellow in law and economics at the University of Chicago and at Yale University.

Professor Rizzo's major fields of research has been law-and economics and ethics-and economics, as well as Austrian economics. He has been the director of at least fifteen major research conferences, the proceedings of which have often been published.

Professor Rizzo received his BA from Fordham University, and his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago.

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2 Comments on Sowing and Reaping: The True Sickness of Society

  1. Excellent! I have asked many socialists why Europeans are rioting and not Americans if inequality is such a threat to social cohesion. I get no response. But the answer is clear: as wealth shrinks due to socialist policies the fighting over the remaining scraps becomes more vicious.

  2. When, as in any variety of statism, public goals replace (through coercion) the ends of individuals and smaller groups, we find ourselves in a Hobbesian war of all against all. We fight over the little details of politics and policy because those aspects of social life have intruded so far and deeply into our individual lives. We should not be surprised by the “tone of the debate” when the debate means so much for each individual because his private concerns have been merged into those of the state and society in general.

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