The Greedy State
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 isnt a column about sidelights of presidential history. This is a column about a problem thats 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 werent 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 peoples 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 didnt 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 cant 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.
Were living in an orgy of greed, all right: government greed.
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