I saw a Facebook bumper-sticker today, with the following quote, allegedly from Dr. Thomas Sowell, a Libertarian economist. (They like to call themselves “Austrian School economists.”)
Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?
This is one of those carefully framed rhetorical questions that admits to only one answer. In thinking about it, I decided to ask a different question:
What part of what I work for actually belongs to me?
The answer I come up with is, “Damned little.”
I don’t raise my own food, for my own consumption. I don’t shear my own sheep, to spin my own thread, to weave my own clothing. I don’t dig my own outhouses, set my own bones, or write my own books to read.
The work I do is of no direct benefit to me at all. I write software that I can’t even use.
I work exclusively for the benefit of other people, who offer me a “market value” in return for my work.
Of course, this “market value” is less than the actual value of my work, because my work must result in profits which accrue to the ownership class — my pay comes out of the “operating expenses” left over after profits are taken out. Economists always turn this around: they say profit is what is left over after operating expenses have been met, but that isn’t true. Businesses that don’t show acceptable profit are shut down; businesses that achieve profits by underpaying their employees are considered wise. Profits come first.
This is how the ownership class becomes and remains wealthy. This is why they start businesses and offer jobs. If my work doesn’t result in more value than what I am paid, then I get fired, or the division is shut down, or the company fails. I work on what the owners direct me to work on, under conditions they dictate, and their direction is for their profit, not mine. It isn’t “my” work at all. It is “their” work; I am simply doing it for them.
I work first and primarily to support the wealth of the Owners.
But even what I eventually receive as my “market value” — my income — is not what I’m working for.
I contribute a large chunk of that income back as taxes, to pay for all the infrastructure of civilization that allows me to have a “market value” for what I do. Indeed, much of the work that most of us do is in direct or indirect support of the trappings of civilization. The number of people in this country who live entirely “off-grid,” who need none of the trappings of civilization, is tiny: and if they don’t own the land they live on, they are considered vagrants and squatters with no right to be there — they are tolerated precisely to the extent that they remain invisible.
What is my alternative? Try to find an empty place, go off-grid, and hope no one ever sees me? End taxation, and with it, civilization? I think not.
I work to support civilization.
Most of my remaining income has gone to raising kids in a family: food, shelter, clothing, education. Now that my children are grown, support goes to my grandchildren.
What is my alternative? To let my children starve? I think not.
I work to support my children and grandchildren.
My father had a pension — Social Security, part of that civilization I support with taxes — else I’d have needed to support him in his old age. And he lived a very long time, longer than most parents. My wife’s father lived in a country with no national pension for old people, so we had to support him in his old age. And he lived a very long time, longer than most parents.
What is my alternative? Throw parents and grandparents out on the street to beg for crusts until they starve? Pray they die young, before they become too old to pay their own way? Shoot them? I think not.
I work to support the needs of my parents and grandparents through their old age.
We live in communities. I support law enforcement, and hospitals, and community colleges, and festivals, and dances, and symphony orchestras, and artists. I support trash pickup, and sewage treatment, and stoplights, and paved city streets.
What is the alternative? To live in the decaying squalor of a failing community? I think not.
I work to support a living community.
I hedge against the ups and downs of life: we call it “insurance.” There’s auto insurance, and homeowners’ insurance, and renter’s insurance, and unemployment insurance, and health insurance, and life insurance. If I’m extraordinarily lucky, I will never have a car accident, never have my property stolen or destroyed, never get laid off, never get sick, and live long enough to see all my obligations fulfilled. If I’m that lucky, then every dime I spend on insurance pays, not for me or my needs, but for the needs of others less fortunate. That’s how insurance works.
What is the alternative? To try to save up enough money myself to cover any possible hardship, and if it isn’t enough, to go bankrupt or die? I think not.
I work to support the needs of total strangers facing misfortune, expecting that if I face misfortune, strangers will support my needs.
None of these things that I work for are about me at all, and they certainly don’t belong to me — not civilization, not children, not parents, not community, not communal disaster relief funds.
They are not mine. What I work for is not mine.
I’m perfectly fine with this — working my entire life away for things that I never get to call “mine.” Most people are. We have just been distracted and deceived into answering the wrong, cleverly-worded question.
What angers me is not that people take “my stuff” away from me — they don’t — but rather the stamp of private ownership and profit laid on things that cannot, and should not, be owned. Which happen to be the very things I work for.
Skimming from the community disaster relief fund is as immoral as it gets, and there is no worse modern example than health insurance in the United States. Illness and medical disaster can strike anyone, and by definition, illness takes the ill out of the productive workforce — meaning they can no longer effectively pay their own way. This is why we share the cost of medical care, through a hedge fund, a disaster relief fund, an insurance pool, or whatever else you want to call it. Private insurance is owned — that’s the meaning of “private.” And the owners skim profits from the fund. This is simply theft from those struck by disaster, no different from finding someone struck by a car and going through his pockets for loose cash.
Skimming from pensions for the old is no different. The attempts to “privatize” Social Security are really just an attempt to allow the care of the old to be owned, and to allow the owners to skim from their care. It is theft from the old.
Putting oil pipelines through watersheds, poisoning entire cities with industrial waste, and in general destroying living communities for the purpose of private profit, is also deeply immoral. It is theft, but on a much larger scale, and occasionally strays across the line into mass-murder.
Threatening the viability of the very world our children and grandchildren will inherit is perhaps the deepest immorality of all. This goes far beyond theft — it is ecocide, the mass-murder of the future.
Threatening civilization is perhaps the least of my concerns, mostly because of my historical awareness that civilizations grow old and die, just like people. I do not know if Western Civilization has reached its senescence: many have said it has, for centuries now, and perhaps it is true. If not — if ownership and profit and theft is the only thing that threatens a great civilization in its prime — I don’t even know if there is a word for the crime. Perhaps kleptocracy. Perhaps a form of genocide.
Mr. Sowell’s understanding of what we work for, and what we expect in return, appears to be very shallow.