Sowing and Reaping: The True Sickness of Society

by Mario Rizzo  

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.

11 thoughts on “Sowing and Reaping: The True Sickness of Society

  1. In an earlier comment Roger says, “I prefer truth to party.”

    Hayek in _TRtoS_ explains why leftists and statist over time so often begin to chose party over truth — it’s required to achieve a unified understanding and to achieve a unified objective.

    And this explains why the “genetic fallacy” becomes so important historically to leftist and statists from the time of Marx to the Western Marxists to the present day — the systematic discrediting of all rival positions based on _where they came from_ is the mechanism used to achieve party unity on the subject of what the truth is.

    Mises has a great discussion of this and its role in the attack on classic liberal and the science of the market in his _Human Action_.

  2. Mario has neatly turned Hobbes on his head. Hobbes said we need government to escape the war of all against all. Mario has argued that, when the welfare state grows beyond a certain point, it creates the war of all against all.

    What is happening in the EU is a lesson for us here.

  3. A Hobbesian war, interesting!

    In other words Locke’s common values in society, which constitute the state, are blurred and undermined by interest groups that expanded the state for their purposes?

    As the state grows by pleasing interest groups, the political importance of the constituting values falls relative to the gains from state expansion (for successful interest groups).

    When common values seem to be outweighed by gains from redistribution, and the stakes for these interest groups have become large, a dispute about the gains can cause war.

  4. In 1994, I wrote a piece for The Freeman called “Nineteen Neglected Consequences of Income Redistribution.” It also appears as chapter 3 of my book Against Leviathan. This article argues that the interest-group broker state evolves not only into a Hobbesian war, but into something even worse in a variety of ways.

  5. If I understand Anthony de Jasay correctly, he argues that the expansive State truly brings us back to the Hobbesian problem.

    Endogenously generated social order precedes the ‘social contract’ and as the provisions of the ‘contract’ grow and encourage more free-riding on the ‘central provision of order’, it erodes the endogenous social order of norms, mores and rules embedded in society. Thus we end up in the ‘warre of all against all’ with the overweening state, each of us grasping in the ever-widening tragedy of the commons created by the state provision of goods and free-riding with “avidity and partiality” on the norms being crowded out by the State’s legislation.

    Ironically, the Hobbesian trouble that we need the State because of defection in one-shot prisoner’s dilemmas is the same trouble in the redistributive State, since the ‘infinitely repeated’ positive-sum games of the market are replaced with negative-sum redistributionist games and thus we lose the incentive to choose cooperative outcomes!

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