When Wishes Become Rights
NOVEMBER 01, 1964 by LEONARD E. READ
Reflect on the "backward" countries in the world; the "distressed areas" in the U.S.A.; the many individuals who are poverty stricken, lame, blind. Then add all the unfulfilled desires and yearnings of nearly 200 million Americans, ranging from better food, housing, clothing, medicine, hospitals, mink coats, and automobiles to putting three men on the moon. What a field for the would-be philanthropist if all these wants were within his power to fulfill!
Let us imagine that you have been offered a magic power to satisfy everyone’s material wishes with no effort on your part. Suppose, for instance, that you had Aladdin’s lamp and could call up a jinni that would confer any good or service on anyone you might choose to help. If you could thus satisfy desires for material things with neither cost nor effort on the part of anyone, would you be willing to assume the role of Aladdin and bestow benefactions like manna from heaven?
Perhaps you are among the very few whose answer would be an emphatic "No!" There are those few who would immediately sense the consequences of such reckless "humanitarianism": no more farming; the closing of all factories and stores; trains and planes coming to a stop; students no longer studying; a heaven on earth—a veritable Shangri-La! No more problems; labor passé; self-responsibility "old hat"; effort relegated to the decadent past; all obstacles overcome for mankind! These few know that when there is no exercise and flexing of the faculties, atrophy follows as a matter of course and our species disappears—all because everyone is granted riches for nothing more than the wishing!
If this sort of magic were only half practiced, would the result still be bad? "Yes!" answered Benjamin Franklin, "If man could have Half his Wishes, he would double his Troubles." We may infer from this that if a man’s objectives could be achieved for nothing more than wishes, no good would be served, deterioration would ensue. Struggle, earning one’s spurs, conscious effort, calling on one’s potentialities and bringing them into use are essential to survival—to say nothing of progress. This is crystal clear to a few. But not to the many!
The Modern Jinni
A majority of Americans, today, would accept the magic lamp. For it is obvious that most persons who would gratify a wish at the expense of others would more readily do so at no expense to others. Such wishers are among us by the millions, all in pursuit of something for nothing—effortless wish gratification—at someone else’s expense.
These many Americans have found their magic lamp in the Federal political apparatus, and what a jinni! Aladdin’s lamp evoked a jinni of supernatural powers; but this modern jinni is a composite of quite ordinary human beings and, as a consequence, it relies on the earthly ways of humans. Even so, we must never sell it short; it is unbelievably clever.
Aladdin’s jinni performed only on call; it responded to wishes when requested. This modern American version, on the other hand, displays zealous initiative in that it:
(1) invents wishes for people;
(2) persuades people that these wishes are their own and, then, actively solicits their gratification;
(3) convinces people that these wishes are among their natural rights, and
(4) casts itself in the role of "helper."
Mythology in its heyday never came up with a jinni to equal this. Golden goals for people to adopt? It was this jinni, not the people of the Tennessee Valley, that initiated TVA with its below-cost pricing. It was this jinni that conceived "social security," the Peace Corps, and so on.1
Further, the jinni insinuates its golden goals into the minds of people as wishes capable of fulfillment. The jinni appears in nearly every community of the nation and in many countries of the world selling its wishing wares. Federal urban renewal projects are promoted far more by the bureaucracy in Washington than by local citizens. Federal largess is urged upon the citizenry. Of course, the reason is clear enough: urban renewal is an integral part of the numerous Federal "full employment" projects required as cover-ups of the unemployment caused by other Federal policies.2
Remove All Sense of Guilt
But it would hardly do for this jinni to gratify wishes were the performance attended by any sense of guilt on the people’s part. So, how does the jinni dispose of this hazard? Simple! It transmutes wishes into "rights," and remains above suspicion in this legerdemain. Do you wish a restoration of your decaying downtown? Very well; that wish is a right. Do you wish lower rates for power and light? Presto! The wish is a right. Do you wish a better price for your tobacco, a better job, a better education than can be had by your own efforts in willing exchange? These wishes are now your rights. As one spokesman for the Federal jinni so eloquently phrased it:
Enjoyment of the arts and participation in them are among man’s natural rights and essential to his full development as a civilized person. One of the reasons governments are instituted among men is to make this right a reality.3
Except in this political never-never land, it would be absurd to labor the point that a mere wish for material betterment does not create a right to its fulfillment; that is, a wish does not, in any moral or ethical sense, establish a claim on someone else’s property. Yet, transparent as is such doublethink, this is precisely what is accepted by a majority of our countrymen. When the intellectual, quoted above, insists that "enjoyment of the arts and participation in them are among man’s natural rights," he is not referring to a right to attend the opera provided the citizen can buy his own ticket; he means that the citizen has a claim on the property of others to build opera houses and to stage performances for his enjoyment.4 Labor unions with their right-to a-job concept and businessmen with their right-to-a-market idea (outlawing competition) are dealing in the same category of false rights. Indeed, this can be said for all of socialism—without exception!
Rights, in the context under examination, are claims. When we say we have a right to life and liberty, we are staking out our claim to them. We find our sanction for this in the self-evident fact that life and liberty are an endowment of the Creator, not of society or the collective or government.
But, when people say they have a right to a job or to enjoy the arts or to lower power and light rates or to an education or to a decent standard of living, they are staking out a claim to the fruits of the labor of others. Where rests the sanction for this claim? It simply comes from the notion that a wish is a right.
The absurdity of this wish-is a-right sanction comes clear if we reduce the problem to manageable proportions: a you-and-me situation. Do I have a just or rational or moral or ethical claim to use your income to build an opera house for me? Or to buy opera tickets for me? Or to construct a golf course for me? Or to provide a "living wage" for me? Do I have a valid claim to use your income to erect my school and staff it with teachers, or finance my church and supply clergymen?
Most people victimized by the magic transmutation of wishes into rights will, in this you-and me situation, answer the above questions in the negative. What escapes them is that the problem is not altered one whit by adding one person or a hundred or a million of them. And, if it be contended that numbers do matter, then, pray tell, what is the magic number? A majority? Must we not infer from this majoritarian cliché the indefensible proposition that might makes right? Once we accept the fallacy that a wish is a right which, in turn, has to be founded on the error that might makes right, we are led, logically, to the syllogistic conclusion that a wish is might. And what could be less rational than that?
A Benevolent Role
The modern jinni, however, must go on to even greater magic. For it is not adequate merely to dream up wishes for people, to sell them on accepting the wishes, and to solicit the gratification thereof. And more is required than to transmute the wishes into rights. One other bit of abracadabra is a must if the jinni’s image is to remain unassailable: the jinni must cast itself and be popularly accepted in the role of helper. To be thought of as a modern Robin Hood or as a robber of Peter to pay Paul would destroy the whole illusion.
In any community in the land may be found people pointing with pride to some "necessity" the local citizens could not or would not finance, explaining that it was made possible "with the help of the Federal government." Or, read at random on any subject falling within the enlarging Federal embrace and you will come upon statements like this:
The cost of such machines is so prohibitive that no one institution or company can undertake to build one. In our country, it was only with the help of the Federal government… that the cosmotron and its successors were built.5 (Italics added)
The modern American jinni, lacking supernatural powers, cannot bring down manna from heaven. Being earthly, its manna is earthly in origin. Having nothing whatsoever of its own, its "gifts" must, perforce, stem from what is taken by coercion from others. It cannot be otherwise.
But Is It Helpful?
The questions posed are: Do these "gifts" qualify as help? Is this jinni, in fact, a helper? Are the "beneficiaries" really helped? If we can answer these questions in the negative, we come out from under the jinni’s spell.
Help is a social term.6 At least two persons—the helper and the helped—are implicit in its meaning. There cannot be one without the other. The extent to which one is helped is measured precisely by the nature and amount of the helper’s contribution. What is received by the one is what comes from the other. Nothing is altered by the transfer. If the helper’s help is a loaf of bread, the recipient is helped to the extent of a loaf of bread. If the contribution is a rotten egg, the other gets a rotten egg—nothing more nor less! Emerson summarized these facts succinctly and dramatically:
Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.
Property taken without consent is correctly branded as ill-gotten.? If passed on to another, the other receives ill-gotten property. Nothing is altered by the transfer. According to moral law, as well as the law of the land, one who takes property without the owner’s consent commits a crime. When such property is passed on to and accepted by another, the other is adjudged an accomplice to the crime.
Property taken without consent cannot be given, for to give is conditioned on and presupposes ownership by the giver. I cannot give that which is not mine. Thus, the jinni’s largess cannot qualify as gifts but only as loot. Citizens who have been pointing with pride at their rebuilt downtown section or at the new hospital "financed" by Washington or at their subsidized this-or-that should modify their exclamations: "See what we have done with the loot of the Federal government!"
Loot is not help, one who loots is not a helper, and one who accepts the loot is not really helped.
Power to tamper with the volitional faculties of others is, in fact, a dangerous possession. Nor does it much matter whether this power be used to restrain these faculties, as in private or political dictatorship, or exerted to relieve the need for the exercise of these faculties, as in private or political welfarism. However strong the compulsion in most of us to modify or improve the lot of other people, if we would avoid causing more harm than good, we must confine ourselves to those aids that stimulate the renewed exercise of the volitional faculties in others. This suggests a rejection of all powers to impose, leaving instead a reliance upon in-gathering or drawing power—that magnetic, attracting, emulating force, the power that derives from such self-perfection as one may achieve.8
Not the Objectives, but the Means, Are in Doubt
I must not, in picking to pieces the notion that wishes are rights, leave the impression that wishes, of and by themselves, are proper objects of scorn. On the contrary, wishes, hopes, aspirations are among the most important forces motivating human progress, evolution, emergence. At issue here is only the means of their gratification.
We who reject illusory schemes are not denying the good life to others but merely pointing out that these political nostrums can lead only to desolatory dead ends. No good end can be reached by choosing a wrong way.
While it is not the purpose of this paper to explain the right way, that way is far from a secret—even though it be but little practiced and only slightly perceived. The right way is the greatest gratifier of human wishes ever come upon—when allowed to operate. It is as morally sound as the Golden Rule. It is the way of willing exchange, of common consent, of self-responsibility, of open opportunity. It respects the right of each to the product of his own labor. It limits the police force to keeping the peace. It is the way of the free market, private property, limited government. On its banner is emblazoned Individual Liberty.
1 This point is excellently covered by Dr. Emerson P. Schmidt in "The Public Demands…?" See THE FREEMAN, August, 1964.
2 For a development of this point, see the chapter, "How Pressure Groups Cause Inflation" in my Anything That’s Peaceful. (Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 243 pp. $2.50 paper; $3.50 cloth.)
3 See The Commonweal, August 23, 1963, p. 494.
4 See "Can Opera Be Grand If Socialized?"
5 See The Atom by George L. Bush and Anthony Silvidi (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., p. 109).
6 Self-help is irrelevant in this context.
7 The collection of a tax to cover the legitimate and principled functions of government, related to keeping the peace, is itself legitimate and principled and drastically differs from a use of the taxing power to feather the nests of some at the expense of others. See my Government: An Ideal Concept. (Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., $1.50 paper; $2.00 cloth) pp. 11-57.
8 This is not to be construed as an argument against the practice of charity in its best sense: coming to the rescue of those who are at the end of their rope—a subtle, sensitive, secret, highly spiritual experience rarely dwelt upon today, in or out of church circles.