May the statists, stasists, technocrats, planners, idealists of all stripes consider the following during 2008 and beyond.
I will bear the burden of proof. Before advocating to grant a favored group or individual special privileges, or before imposing taxes and regulations on individuals or unfavored groups, I will recognize that the natural state of humans is neither as slaves nor masters. That so long as each of us individuals respects the property and natural rights to life and liberty of our fellow man, we shall be insured that our own property and natural rights will not be aggressed against. The burden of proof is upon those who wish to aggress upon those rights.
I will not treat collectives as individuals. There is no such thing as a “we.” The “state” does not have feelings, knowledge, love, hate, etc. The “state” is a collection of individuals, each with their own opinions, will-power, knowledge, feelings. When I refer to the term “we” it is just shorthand for saying the “aggregation of the actions of countless individuals.” Collectives, in particular government, are not some higher moral entity. Because my neighbor and me are conscious, community oriented individuals, talking about the collective actions of everyone like us does not give us moral authority.
Pretty center cities, parks, public places, buildings, etc. are not ends in themselves. When I think about making my community a better place to live, I will focus on what things I can do to improve the lives of individuals that live within my community. Doing something to make old buildings look prettier, for example, is not the same thing as insuring that all individuals in my community have an opportunity to learn and prosper.
When advocating a policy, I will consider the question, “As compared to what?” For example, when someone says that original appropriation of property does not leave enough of, or as good of, property for others (the Lockean Proviso), this does not consider that leaving resources in common (as they were before original appropriation) most often does not leave enough and as good for others. The case of the American Buffalo serves as a stark reminder.
I will recognize that resources do not magically fall from the sky. Neither politicians nor my wishes to the contrary can alter the natural condition of scarcity. For example, there is a reason why not every American owns a Mercedes Benz and a 4,000 square foot beach house. There are not nearly enough resources to produce these for all citizens. By mandating every citizen to have a Mercedes Benz and a huge house will not magically direct resources to the production of these items. And if it did, the production of these goods would direct valuable resources away from the production of food and other important items. So, just saying people have a right to health care, for example, carries no weight.
I will respect the entrepreneurs who risk so much and end up making all of us very well off. For example, if someone invents a new way to cure cancer, but that treatment costs $1 million, I will not tax this new treatment, nor will I enact legislation which mandates its availability to everyone – for it will be ultimately available to no one under those conditions. If the makers of the first color TV’s faced an excess profits tax and they were forced to distribute those new products to the poor when they were first invented, few of us would enjoy the color TVs at the low prices and high quality that we do today.
People respond to incentives. Even well intentioned policies are likely to produce consequences which were neither foreseen nor desired. For example, the Endangered Species Act has the laudable intention of making sure that species do not go extinct. However the devil is in the details. According to the Endangered Species Act, you can take no actions which would impair the habitat for species which live on or near your property. In essence, you must cede your property to the state in order to protect species. What is a property owner to do when she sees that an endangered species might be in or around her property? Let the species nest and lose the rights to do what one wishes to one’s own land? Or to take measures to protect one’s own property? The sad outcome of the construction of the Endangered Species Act has been a destruction of habitat before species ever have a chance to locate there, and a less than stellar record of protecting species that have been listed. Follow the story of the red cockaded woodpecker in North Carolina for an illustration.
I will understand the difference between positive-sum wealth enhancing institutions and exchanges versus zero- or negative-sum institutions or transactions. Participating in a commercial society is not like a football game. When two people voluntarily agree to an exchange, by definition both parties are better off. When a party is forced into a transaction, there is no guarantee that her situation is improved. Why else would she need to be forced in the first place?
If I believe that evil people run corporations, bespoil our environment, overconsume, and do all sorts of “undesirable” things, I will also understand that these same people are also in government. I will recognize that working for government does not suddenly somehow turn people into saints? For example, is the John Corzine who ran Goldman Sachs different than the Corzine that is governor of New Jersey? Is the Dick Cheney from Halliburton different than Dick Cheney the VEEP?
Successful communes do not run themselves as open-access commons. I will continue to look at our office fridge for a reminder.
I will understand that bumper stickers like “1.20.09” have no meaning. What, in your life, can any President reasonably do? Do we really believe that minimum wage increases will become automatic and large? Do we really believe that nationalized health care will be a reality? Do we really believe we will see social security private accounts? Do we really believe that the U.S. will stop intervening around the globe? Most of all, do we really believe that if “your” guy (or gal) were in office, suddenly we will be governed by the Philosopher Kings? Do we really believe that Democrat and Republican politicians face different incentives while in office? Or have access to different types of knowledge? May this New Year see an explosion of concerned individuals taking better care of their friends and families and community groups. May this New Year see an explosion of small and large entrepreneurial activity. But to think that this New Year will be special because the “Administration” is changing is a little more than starry eyed.
I will not believe government is the default solution to every problem. When a problem is identified in society, either because open-access resources are being poorly maintained, or because activities are found to present unacceptable externalities, or because individuals and firms seem to be lacking important information or coordinating activities, does it have to be the case that the default solution is attached the barrel of a gun? Just because third party intervention and contracting has the theoretical ability to make all of us better off, does that mean that governments must be those third parties? Why not some other organization?
I will appreciate that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket. And that includes from my classical liberal perspective too. For all that I complain about lost freedoms and increased state involvement in my life, there has probably never been a time and place in human history where individuals have been so free to choose to live the life they dream about, and to live long and prosper. So too, will the statists among us appreciate that standards of living today are higher than at any point in human history, and that even those among the poorest classes today, particularly in the United States, live a quality of life that would be the envy of even the highest noblemen from two centuries ago. And I will continue to ask myself, would I rather be alive in the United States today, or anywhere else in the world (including the United States) 30 years ago.