The endless I.O.U.

During the 2008 campaign, the Net began a tentative reverberation around the concept of "socialism," which had been an unfamiliar theme in recent presidential contests.  The early reaction was often the print equivalent of blank stares, as many people took a moment to look the word up in the dictionary.  I recall many discussions of whether President Obama's goals, whatever each writer guessed they might be, actually lined up well with the classical definition of socialism.

Over the last four years, the controversy has developed a louder drumbeat.  More and more writers decline to split hairs over the precise definition of socialism and instead concentrate on the relative merits of centralized vs. dispersed control over economic decisions, as well as the central question of how a society most fairly rewards the contributions of its members.  Ann Althouse is hosting a discussion of the issue this week.  One of her readers demanded to know whether she truly thought Obama was a socialist.  She replied that it was a question of whether his policies were leading in that direction, rather than whether his convictions met a doctrinaire definition.  Other readers are chiming in with methods of describing the spectrum, using the "You Didn't Build That" argument as part of their base.  As one noted, it's important to look at the traditional functions of business owners and to examine to what extent government is usurping them.  Business owners decide which products they will push and at what price.  They hire the workers they need and make their own determination of what price they need to pay to get and keep the workers they want.  When the government sets prices, when it subsidizes products it approves of, when it orders consumers to buy products, when it mandates wages and benefits, when it interferes in business-labor negotiations, when it bails out business failures, when it invests directly in failing businesses and picks new executives -- then government may not technically own the means of production, but it's swallowing up the function of owners bit by bit.

The "You Didn't Built That" controversy is inspiring a fresh look at how the members of a society reward each other.  Everyone knows that a commercial transaction in a complex society doesn't take place in a vacuum.  The most rugged free-market individualists acknowledge the importance of law and order to support a secure and predictable commercial system.  Wealthy families are not sending their young heirs to Somalia to get in on the ground floor of profitable trade opportunities.  Roads and bridges are a good thing if you want to get your products to willing buyers.  Every factory owner depends on supplies and labor to develop into marketable products.  But does that mean our system will work best if the factory owner shares more of his profit with whatever group we think is most under-rewarded this season?

The free-market system appears too mercenary for many tastes, because it rests on the assumption that no one should get anything without paying for it.  The socialist system, though, is even worse:  it assumes that we should all pay for the same things repeatedly.  The business owner somehow scraped up initial capital (by saving it, or by persuading others to save it and risk it on him) and spent it to build his plant and hire his workers.  It's not as though he passed the hat and asked his neighbors to provide him with their time and goods out of fellow-feeling.  If his business was successful, he asked people to part with money before walking out the door with whatever useful product he put out -- but he did part with a valuable product rather than taking the purchase price at gunpoint.  He used the public roads and courts and schools, but those had previously been built with taxes on businessmen like himself, and taxes continue to supported the ongoing costs of operation.  Must we all be taxed to pay for this valuable infrastructure, and then still listen to complaints that we're getting it for free, and that we owe and owe and owe for the privilege until the day we die (and even then our estates owe)?  Must employers pay wages and still feel an undischargeable debt to their workers, or society in general, for the value of the goods they produce?

That's what's wrong with the "You Didn't Build That" speech.  We actually did build that, or at least we've already paid our share of inducing other people to build it.  It's not the government's place to keep charging rent on infrastructure forever, just because its origins are diffuse.  Citizens did it, if not directly then by funding a collective program to do it via government.  There is no outstanding bill to pay, no debt of gratitude coming due.  We all need to pay enough taxes to support whatever useful things the government is doing if we want them to continue.  We don't all owe an extra duty to pay taxes in order to compensate an amorphous body of people who "got us where we are" and are now presenting a new bill for the same old service.


E Hines said...

There's another aspect to Obama's "You Didn't Build That" speech that's overlooked. As you point out, [The businessman] used the public roads and courts and schools, but those had previously been built with taxes on businessmen like himself, and taxes continue to supported the ongoing costs of operation.

Those roads and courts and schools and bridges and infrastructure, generally, also were built by other private businessmen. The Seabees and the Corps of Engineers were not involved, except in the most localized, extreme cases like post-Katrina with a few levees.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

It's not the government's place to keep charging rent on infrastructure forever....

Once upon a time there was a road called Georgia 400. The government said, "Wouldn't it be convenient if this road were extended a few miles, so that instead of terminating at the perimeter road (actually, just a bit inside it), it connected the perimeter road with the main downtown highway?

Yes, communters in North Georgia said, that would be very convenient. Also very expensive, though, and the rest of the state objected to paying for a road of so much benefit to relatively few of the states' citizens.

So it was agreed that there would be a toll on the road -- the only toll road in Georgia at the time! Brilliant idea: let the people who benefit from it most pay the lion's share of the cost. If they don't want to pay, they can take the old surface roads for free like always. There's still some benefit even to these people, since those surface streets will be a touch less busy; but the main benefits will flow to those paying for them directly.

The deal was that the toll would end as soon as the road was paid for. That date came and went, and tolls were still being charged. Year after year, the government continued to charge the toll. It appeared to be a permanent feature of the landscape.

But Lo! I see that Governor Nathan Deal has just said that he will end the toll! And why? Because, he says, voters should know that the state will keep its word.

Well, also, it looks like they needed to pass another referendum on another tax, which they totally promise will end in 10 years when the projects are paid for. Nobody believes them because of the 400 Toll, and voters appear to be ready to forgo the goods rather than endorse another tax. So, they're finally ending the old tax (many years late) to prove they'll forgo the new tax at the appropriate time.

Which, you know, I doubt very much. It's more likely that the the government expects to benefit from the trade of the toll for the tax. But it's a great opportunity for us to shoot down both at the same time.

bthun said...

Barnes IIRC, was the motivating force behind voiding the promise to end the 400 toll once the construction costs were recovered. That was but one of the many things that insured Barnes was a one-n-done Gov. Too slick by half, as is typical of many gob'ment highwaymen.

Now we have a T-SPLOST (transportation special purpose local option sales tax) on the ballot this Tuesday. A tax which will add only one penny of sales tax in the greater metro area. The benefits of said tax will improve infrastructure (sounds familiar...). However, a review of the details of T-SPLOST show that Hotlanta and a couple of the inner counties get the meat and gravy while the outlying counties get what's left of the cornbread.

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was...

bthun said...

And yup, nothing about Gub'ment is ever paid in full... It runs on the installment plan.

Grim said...

Yeah, roger that. I voted early since I happened to be down at the county building last week. Tax increases that come across my ballot are subject to a rather unforgiving algorithm. Incumbents too, unless they were very impressive.

bthun said...

"Tax increases that come across my ballot are subject to a rather unforgiving algorithm. Incumbents too, unless they were very impressive."

Roger that indeed!

raven said...

Tou all are being way too harsh. Why, just yesterday Barak came over to work in the office for most of the day, and then came out to the shop to help me make parts till 7:30. I just couldn't do without him!