Machan’s Archives: Once Again, Freedom is at Fault
Tibor R. Machan
“The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” was how John Philpot Curran put it. Sure enough, but there is vigilance and there is vigilance and the sort I am familiar with is not what people usually think of when they hear the above truth.
My own experience is that in a relatively free society such as ours, the vigilance required consist of unfailingly meeting arguments that aim to support the violation of human liberty with ones that show that the individual’s right to liberty is indeed the supreme public good.
I thought of this when I came across, a while back, a book by Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank and Duke University political scientist Philip J. Cook, The Winner-take-all Society (The Free Press, 1995). The work argues that in our relatively free market system we sometimes encounter a phenomenon that’s disturbing to some, one whereby in many fields of work a few superstars take all the money, with the bulk of the rest bunched together fighting over the left over crumbs. As they put it, “The incomes of the top 1 percent more than doubled in real terms between 1979 and 1989, a period during which the median income was roughly stable and in which bottom 20 percent of earners saw their incomes actually fall by 10 percent.” Because of this the authors recommend — you guessed it — a drastic expansion of the system of progressive taxation. If Michael Jordan, Tom Brokaw, John Grisham, John Silber, Cyndy Crawford, Larry King, Sandra Bullock, Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Barbara Cartright, Ann Rice, Michael Jackson and Arnold Schwartzenegger take home so much of the available money in their respective professions, we must not allow this to happen. We must make laws to take the money from them. This will discourage such stardom and will help us redistribute their ill gotten gain to others whom we did not elect, by our choices in the free market, to receive our spending money. You and I are not going to be allowed to give all this money to these folks, and the few others in their class, no. Politicians and bureaucrats will be authorized, if these authors have their way, to check our choices, to correct our errors, to eliminate this egregious “market failure.”
Why it this regarded a market failure? Well, because these folks aren’t really more deserving than the others bunched below them. Surely Rush Limbaugh’s radio rap isn’t much better than that of a much lower paid local talk show host. Michael Jordan plays superbly, but not by so much as to justify all the endorsement contracts he receives. Michael Jackson performs well, but … well, we get the idea, don’t we?
I confess that some of this resonates with me a bit. I am a small time writers, my 12 books haven’t brought in enough to pay the paper on which they are printed, my columns earn me a pittance compared to what George Will gets, etc., etc. I am envious, at times, of all those who live in the big cities and get exposure on the Sunday morning news programs. Even in my field of philosophy, there are stars whose popularity — manifest in their repeated appearance on the pages of not only the most prominent and prestigious scholarly journals of national magazines and Sunday book review supplements — are way out of proportion to their talent and achievement. They are where they are in large measure from bad habit, luck, knowing the right people, whatever, with their superior achievements probably accounting for a fraction of the rewards they reap, not just in money earned but in influence they manage to peddle.
But so what? How dare anyone suggest that this is something that others ought to check by the exercise of nothing other than coercive government intervention? It is an outrage.
I don’t know if the scholars who propose this are simply morally obtuse or actually envious of the fame and fortune of a few others in their filed, Nobel Prize winners Gary Becker or Milton Friedman in economics, for example. It doesn’t make any difference what motivates these people. What is clear is that they are proposing yet another phony reason to increase the power of the state over the lives of citizens in a supposedly free society.
It is perhaps worth noting that the complaint voiced by Frank and Cook applies to an era of American economic history that is hardly characterized by a national economic policy of laissez-faire. Quite the contrary — our national economic system has become more and more managed by government. Regulation, taxation, nationalization of land, control of wages and labor relations, welfare, and the rest have never declined, either at the national or regional levels. At most there has occasionally been some decrease in the rate of the expansion of government interference. Even the current Republican House is not managing to reduce government interference and spending, only to stem the proposed increases in some very few areas.
But even if it were true that a bona fide free market has seen the emergence of something akin to the winner-take-all society, so what? If I wish to ogle two or three supermodels and thus increase their wealth beyond anything the rest in their profession earn, that is my business. Pace Mr. Obama, it’s my earnings, my time, my good or ill fortune and these are for me to distribute to willing takers, not for the politicians and bureaucrats whose power Frank and Cook are so eager to rationalize.
Let us not be taken in by this somewhat novel effort to increase even more the power of the state over our lives. If some entertainers, CEOs, athletes or novelists are lucky enough to parley their talent into gigantic rewards, let it be. If this will outrage us, we will remedy it somehow. We will find peaceful, noncoercive ways that reverse the trend. We do not need the remedy of the state, even if that were likely (which it isn’t since those serving in government aren’t noted for their success at establishing fairness anywhere, let alone in how money is spent by government).
Frank and Cook can, of course, do some good by letting us know of the trends they wrote about. But their proposed remedy is wrong and should be rejected by anyone who has any concern for the quality of our society. Liberty does require eternal vigilance, even in the fashion to paying close attention to sophists who would give ammunition to statists to increase their power over us.