Grim has been arguing with me lately about how wages work, what they reflect, and how they should be set. We even discussed the possibility of selling freedom, in effect: commanding a higher or more secure wage by bartering away long-term freedom, as in an indenture. These proposals, like thought experiments about selling organs, were mostly ways to explore why neither of us could tolerate the idea.
It occurs to me now that we were missing something that's not merely a thought experiment or even a cautionary tale, but a real live, functioning economic system:
A welfare state threatens to become a system in which the most valuable service some voters can offer the market is to elect a politician who will drain resources from those who didn't elect him. The politician pays for this service by routing a fraction of the loot back to his loyal voters. The welfare state differs from our earliest attempts at state-administered charity in that the politician no longer is commandeering and redistributing only a small fraction of the nation's wealth to a small number of the most desperately needy. Now he's commandeering from 49% of voters and redistributing to 51%. Once the politician realizes that that's the path to staying in office (where he makes a handy living by skimming off the top of the redistributed funds), we are well on our way back to a command economy, one in which a centralized power directs where most of the resources shall be routed. That way lies poverty for everyone.
How do we stop a pernicious system of votes for hire? Honestly, I don't know. On my darkest days I think the franchise should be weighted by the amount of taxes one pays. Obviously that system would create its own problems. I'm tempted to say that, once the wheels come off the cart in this particularly way, it can't be fixed. And yet many countries that suffered behind the Iron Curtain have turned their kleptocracies around and begun to increase their prosperity again, so it's clearly not impossible. Is it like drunks, who have to hit a hard, hard, rock bottom before change can come?