June 10, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     Several readers have pointed out that I recently 
referred to President William McKinley as "James" 
McKinley. ["Land of the What?" dated June 3, which was 
corrected before being published on the website. 
-- Editor] I am big enough to admit my mistakes, but why 
don't these people get a life? It's not as if any of 
them was on first-name terms with presidents.

     Anyway, it was a natural slip. I was momentarily 
confusing McKinley with his predecessor, James Cleveland. 
Besides, so many of our presidents have been named James: 
James Madison, James Monroe, James Polk, James Buchanan, 
James Carter, and, of course, James Clinton, though he 
lied about his name so that when his wife answered the 
phone and a sultry female voice asked for "Bill," Mrs. 
Clinton would assume it was a wrong number.

     But this isn't a column about sidelights of 
presidential history. This is a column about a problem 
that's been bothering me for a long time: greed.

     The eulogies of Ronald Reagan remind me that 
liberals used to describe the Reagan years as "a decade 
of greed," because Reagan was accused (falsely, alas) of 
slashing taxes and the welfare state. When voters vote to 
cut their own taxes, everyone calls it a "tax revolt" and 
liberals speak darkly of "an orgy of greed."

     Nobody seems to notice that this stands the 
traditional meaning of "greed" on its head. The word used 
to mean wanting something that belonged to somebody else. 
Robbing a bank was greedy. Cheating people out of their 
property was greedy.

     But in the twentieth century, the Age of Socialism, 
"greed" came to mean wanting to keep your own property, 
especially your money. The idea was that everything sort 
of belonged to everyone, and the government should decide 
who got what. It worked beautifully in Russia and China, 
where the toiling masses lived happily ever after, but 
for some reason Americans weren't enchanted by all-out 
socialism, which was forced to adopt the piecemeal 
strategy of liberalism.

     Socialism and liberalism saw private property as 
unfair, because some people owned more than other people. 
"Progressive" philosophers from Marx to John Rawls argued 
that the state should remedy this basic unfairness by 
redistributing wealth. In a modified form, this idea 
caught on in America, whose tradition of rugged 
individualism tended to melt away when people were 
offered government checks, paid for by taxing "the rich," 
the politicians' nickname for "other people." People who 
would never dream of robbing their neighbors at gunpoint 
found it acceptable to have a government bureaucracy 
doing the dirty work.

     Coveting other people's money through the medium of 
the state was never called "greed." And the state itself 
was never called "greedy," no matter how predatory it 
became. After all, everything belonged to everybody, 
which meant that there were no limits on how much the 
state could claim.

     The old morality of private property fell into 
decay. Governments didn't stop at taxation; they also 
found other, subtler means of confiscation, such as 
inflation. This used to be called "debasing the currency" 
and was recognized as the moral equivalent of 
counterfeiting, only it was worse when the government did 
it, because nobody could tell a phony dollar from a real 
one: They were all partially phony.

     So the state became a vast engine of greed, and in 
democracies most people shrugged and learned to live with 
it, knowing that they themselves would be accused of 
greed if they objected to it.

     Very few people stopped to reflect that property 
rights themselves are the best defense against greed. 
Property rights peacefully define ownership. Where they 
exist, you can't take anything from anybody without his 
consent. The predator has to operate outside the law.

     But under socialism, even in its modified forms, the 
law itself is predatory. Anything you own, or think you 
own, may be taken from you by the state; or your use of 
it may be so limited by "regulation" that your legal 
ownership may be meaningless.

     Private ownership is also the best way to prevent 
concentrated and limitless power. It disperses power like 
nothing else, and formal limits on government -- checks 
and balances, and all that -- are empty if the state owns 
everything in principle. The very phrase "tax revolt" 
implies that the state is the master and the people 
merely the servants. If it were the other way around, it 
would be nonsense to call a popular vote a "revolt."

     We're living in an orgy of greed, all right: 
government greed.


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