Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine is is one of those rich and mysterious works. It is at once singularly focused in subject-matter and expansive in historical breadth. In addition, there is an engineering metaphor running through the text that I have at best tapped but not entirely grasped. It is Paterson who highlighted, for me, the Phoenicians as early expressions of liberty and its productivity. After passing from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Romans, early Christianity, Medieval feudalism, and arriving at the genius of the Magna Carta, her analysis of the original failure of the formation of the United States is original and enlightening. She employs the distinction between societies of status and contract throughout. I recommend her work for those who want to wrestle with the history of force and violence against liberty.
Her chapter, “Humanitarian with the Guillotine”, takes as its principle “Most of the harm in the world is done by good people…”. With clarity and precision she targets the he who would employ the political (coercive) power to make the world better when there is no otherwise breach of private property rights. What is the simple principle that the do-gooder runs into? “You can’t get anything out of production ahead of maintenance.”
Paterson exposits: “But the procedure would be completely insane if the business man gave to a third party an irrevocable power to draw as much as it pleased from the company’s funds, with only an unenforceable understanding that the third party would support the owner’s family. And that is what the proposal to care for the needy by the political means comes to. It gives the power to the politicians to ta without limit; and there is absolutely no way to ensure that the money shall go where it was intended to go. In any case, the business will not stand any such unlimited drain.
Why do kind-hearted persons call in the political power? They cannot deny that the means for relief must come from production.”
Where are we? How did we get here? How did so many otherwise good people become enamored with government force and violence? “Those who do not understand the nature of the action are like savages who might cut down a tree to get the fruit; they do not think over time and space, as civilized men must think.”
Where to start and stop in reflection? How long does it take to cut the tree down entirely? What will those who cut it down be ready to give to those that they harm by their cutting when there is nothing for anyone?
How does the do-gooder who votes for government expropriation from voluntary production justify his vote? He either employs his vote as a form of brutal envy and takes because he can no matter the consequences or he places in the expropriators more virtue than in those who produce. I will forgo analysis of envy. It is evil. Evil is dark and not understandable. But it is. Let it lie.
What of the latter option? What of the possibility that somehow those NOT engaged in production know better than those producing what is necessary for maintenance? This is a common assertion by the young coming out of government schools and is not excised from them by university. Instead it is strengthened. But it is strengthened to the detriment of all.
Who knows best how much time to engage in production? Only he who weighs his resources insufficient. The feedback loop between his need and his response is infallible in the individual. I do not assert that the slothful is correct in his calculation but only that until he reaps the data that is the effects of his choices he will not change. That a forceful institution euphemistically titled “government” knows any of this better than the individuals themselves is ludicrous. This is the Hayekian knowledge argument.
But note what else emerges in the presupposition of the do-gooder who points to government as the source of welfare. Not only does government know better but each individual is to change what he knows is best in his own soul for this government judgment. The forced-labor individual is euphemistically called citizen. But he is at best he who obeys. You think I am exaggerating? An example.
In the USA a family moves from 12% to 22% (the numbers are close) in federal taxes around the $80k mark jointly filing. We will ignore state, local, and sales tax for now. The calculation only worsens. We will ignore forced purchases like social security or health insurance or licenses or permits for now. The calculation only worsens. Take the 22%. 12 (months) x22% means that for a family taxed so the government has deemed it that they take 2.64 months of labor from that family and decide where it goes, what it is spent on, and in addition pay there own wages for doing this. NEVER is it asked whether it is congenial to the maintenance of that family and its productive work. In fact the government becomes the decider that the maintenance of others is more worthwhile always in addition to its paying itself its “fair share”.
There is nothing that governments do that could not be done by private citizens. In fact private security, private education, private dispute arbitration and private trash disposal should suggest to us that it has always been the case and will always be the case that there is something deeply wrong with the suggestion that there is something better in the force and violence against the productive.
At least the employer calculates that brining the otherwise unemployed into production is worthwhile and adding to productivity. The government at best is a dead weight. It pays itself from the productivity of others for the task of distributing the productivity of others. It does so inefficiently and ultimately because it is dead weight it siphons off that portion of productivity which makes productivity worthwhile. Profit. At worst it takes not only profit but maintenance. And given its lack of knowledge about the intricacies of what maintenance requires in this that and the other individual it runs roughshod over the free activity of production and trade causing distortions and manipulation in the entire process.
Only the producers knows what maintenance requires. To take without this knowledge (to take without being the producer) is a recipe for cutting down the tree to get to the fruit. It is short-sighted. That an individual dies supporting such a system but not seeing in his lifetime the fruit of his support will not absolve him of the guilt.
We see the process sped up much faster in Stalin’s Great Famine and Mao’s Great Leap Forward. That the same happens in the welfare state is no excuse. Destroying productivity at slower than more rapid speeds hardly justifies the destruction.