Patrick Henry once said, “Give me Liberty, or give me death,” and there was a time when this was the prevailing vision of our country. That time has passed, and today we are deeply divided. I want to explore that division.
There are two reasons our nation is so thoroughly divided today: time, and values.
Time is the reason both sides in every debate have so many different sets of facts; in economics, a given policy often has very different short term and long term consequences. As an example, look at the use of gas taxes to fund road maintenance.
The demand for gasoline is very inelastic in the short term, which means that demand moves very little even when prices move a great deal. No matter what happens to gas prices, in the near term, people still have to get to work and have no choice but to still buy about the same amount of gas as before.
Gasoline is however very elastic in the long term, meaning that gasoline demand changes a great deal in response to price changes in the long run, as over time people move closer to work and buy more fuel efficient cars.
It works the other way too: we prefer bigger cars with more amenities when gas prices are low relative to our incomes.
Our behaviors change a great deal as gas prices change, but it takes time.
Because of the elasticity of demand for gasoline, which is inelastic in the short term but elastic in the long term, gasoline taxes generate a lot of revenue in the short term but often cause a reduction in revenue in the long term, when less gasoline is used.
Similarly, the demand for labor is very inelastic in the short term, and very elastic in the long term. Someone looking short term will focus on the immediate effect of a minimum wage: more wages in the hands of the least skilled workers. Someone looking long term will see a very different effect: more low skilled workers priced out of the workforce. Both sides can point to legitimate studies that support their positions, because the short term and long term consequences are very different.
The time frame someone focuses on, be it short or long term, affects the data they use to base opinions on, and has a huge impact on what they will believe about the world around them. Long term thinkers tend to prefer free people in free markets. Short term thinkers tend to look for government solutions to all problems. To the short term thinker, the long term thinker wants to ignore society’s problems and is a heartless bastard. To the long term thinker, the short term thinker causes far more problems than they solve.
They are both right, from their own perspectives.
The second thing that divides our country is a difference in values. Some people value liberty over equality (of outcomes), and others value equality (of outcomes) over liberty. Those who value equality over liberty will see different outcomes for different groups and assume that some form of privilege must exist. They will point to the gender pay gap, for example, and tell you that we have a male dominated, paternalistic society. Those who value liberty over equality might look deeper and will point out that men work on average more hours than do women, and that when you factor out all factors other than discrimination, by looking at only people who have never been married or had children, women make more on average than men. Liberty lovers will say that as long as the gender pay gap is caused by choices people freely make, it is not a problem. Those who put equality first will then point out that women only work fewer hours and make other decisions, differently than do men, because they are raised in a paternalistic society that has different expectations of men than of women, and that we must change society’s values to make men and women the same.
Who is right? Both groups are, based on the values they hold. Someone who values liberty would never want to tear down society to get people to act differently than they otherwise would – we should all be free to do as we wish, and let the chips fall where they may! Those who put equality first will view any difference in outcomes as proof that society is flawed, and will work tirelessly to tear society apart until those injustices can be rectified. Those who prefer equality will never tolerate a free society, and those who prefer liberty will never tolerate an equalitarian society.
And you cannot have both.
Values and time frames interact to make the conflict in society even worse than it already sounds. Socialism, for example, works in the short term. Nobody can deny that if government seized all income and all wealth – all cars, houses, stocks, bonds, bank accounts..everything – and gave each person an equal share of the pile, we would be economically equal for at least one brief moment. Nobody can deny that government could control production and consumption in such a way as to keep everyone equal.
At the same time, nobody can deny that people can only be equal if they are tightly controlled, for a free society will immediately see different people doing different things, causing inequality to recur. Only a fool would believe that people will make the same choices and put in the same levels of effort that they put in when they can keep the fruits of their labor, when they get the same outcome no matter what they do.
Equalitarianism in the long run cannot work, and does not work.
All of the rich nations on Earth got that way through free markets. All of them. Every one. And ironically, when you look at command economies, like those that existed in the Soviet Union, or that exist today in China (or Cuba, or North Korea, or Venezuela, or wherever), you see far more inequality than you see in nations that do, or that have recently, operated under free markets.
You could in fact classify economies into four groups: those who are growing under relatively free markets, those who previously grew under free markets and are stagnating or perhaps even shrinking as they transition toward equalitarianism, those who have never used free markets and have always been poor, and those who have fully transitioned to equalitarianism and have subsequently collapsed.
Socialism does not lead to equality. It leads to luxury for the political class, and poverty for everyone else.
The reason socialist nations, in the long run, have the most inequality is really very simple – the political elite have all the power concentrated into their hands, and are just as apt to use it to benefit themselves, rather than anyone else, as would be the economic elite in a free market. In a free market, economic power is widely distributed. Even the CEO of the largest corporation can only control that one corporation, but the dictator of a equalitarian society can control everything. Unless you believe that political self interest is somehow nobler than economic self interest, in the long run you would prefer free markets.
I am of course speaking in extremes, with equalitarianism on one end and libertarianism on the other. Most people want to be somewhere in the middle. Hell – I’m not an extremist; I want to be somewhere in the middle. But I have never heard from the left a discussion about what the proper point on that scale is. I have never heard an equalitarian say, “We have regulated enough and can now stop.” I have never heard an equalitarian say, “Government should not fix that,” to any issue that has ever come up. They push for a direction on the scale rather than some point in the middle.
In some sense, we are all relatively extreme on this scale, for we differ on the most fundamental question of all: is the role of government to maximize the liberty of all of society, or to maximize the equality of all of society? One side wants freedom, and the other wants control.
We cannot have both.
What is also interesting is that even the most fervent believer in equalitarianism wants to be free. I have in fact never met someone who does not want to be free. It is everyone else that these people want to control; never themselves. The equalitarian is as such always a little Stalin, or a little Mao, wanting not only to see society controlled, but wanting also to be one of the ones controlling it. The fact that this does not make them equal to everyone else is somehow lost on them.
Libertarians are equalitarians as well, but in a very different way. We want people to be equal under the law, but to be free to live their lives without government interference, beyond having their liberty secured against those who would coerce them into doing things they do not want to do. Equality under the law is very different than equality in outcomes, and in fact you cannot create equality in outcomes unless you treat people very differently under the law. Furthermore, if you want a society in which people are treated differently under the law, someone, or some group, will have to decide how to apply the law to different people, and this group will by definition be above the law. There is nothing equal about that.
Those who claim to put equality over liberty are either naive, or they, if they are honest, do not believe in equality at all, but want to be in the group that is above the law and in charge of others. These people do not want to eliminate the rich so much as they want to replace it, such that they can enrich themselves.
And they claim the moral high ground, as crazy as that sounds.
Freedom is the only form of equality that ever has, or ever could, exist, and it is high time for those who still love the promise this nation is supposed to stand for, to take the moral high ground back, and tell the socialists that their time is done.
Our motto must be the same as that of Patrick Henry, so long ago: “Give me Liberty, or give me death.”
Incidentally, I am trying something new on this post. Instead of copying it and pasting it into different groups as separate posts, I am sharing it from my home page into different groups. Hopefully this will make it easier to share, for those who may want to do so.