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Monday, February 17, 2014

A Slogan Worth Your Bumper?

Statism can be summed up and slapped on the back of a car. Can the freedom philosophy?

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

—Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson

Statists—those who prefer force-based political action over spontaneous, peaceful, and voluntary initiatives—excel at distilling their views into slogans. It’s shallow stuff, but their pithy expressions have nonetheless taken a toll on individual liberty and free markets.

“I’m for people, not for profits!” is a case in point. Never mind the fact that an economy without profit is an economy that’s headed nowhere (and taking its people with it). If you suggest that one must choose between people and profit—that you can have one only at the expense of the other—it’s not hard to fathom which one the uninformed will pick.

A student leader in the Czech Republic recently asked me, “Can you think of a few words that so effectively summarize the case for liberty that they will draw people to our side?” His name is Jan Škapa and his question revealed an understandable frustration. On a mere bumper sticker, statists glibly express fallacies that require far more time, space, and patience to rebut than it ever took to cook them up in the first place.

I’m no fan of slogans. By their very nature and brevity, they can oversimplify. But is there one, rooted in truth not deception, that would advance liberty and put its opponents on the defensive?

Long Run, All People

I submit there may be many strong candidates for such a slogan, but the moment Škapa raised the question, my nominee was this one: “Long Run, All People.” The more I’ve thought about it since, the more I like it. Škapa informed me that since he started using it at exhibits and in promotions for his organization, Students for Liberty, “the reception has been very positive—people generally agree right up front and are interested in learning more.” You can see reference to it on the group’s Web site under “Why Liberty?” (in Czech, “Proc Svoboda?”).

(Please note: In my view, the moral argument for liberty still trumps all others, including this rather utilitarian one. Liberty is a birthright of all individuals. You forfeit it in whole or in part only when you initiate force against another. But in the battle for liberty, we need many arrows in our quiver. Choose the one you think may best hit the mark depending on the circumstances.)

Statism in all its various forms reduces to this: It’s a short-sighted scheme that benefits some at the expense of others. Its time horizon is usually no further ahead than the next election or, at best, maybe one generation. It profits those who wield power and those who receive more advantages from the state than they pay for, but statism in practice is not aimed at improving the lot of all people in the long run. It’s a short-term theory of redistribution and consumption, not a long-term theory of wealth creation. A more cynical but not inaccurate way to look at it is this: It’s just glorified vote-buying with other people’s money.

Statists like to “stimulate” the economy today by giving money to some (often the politically well-connected) and strapping future generations with debt and inflation to pay for it. They also claim to want to help old people (via Social Security and Medicare) or young people (via student loans). They do it, however, with programs that shift power and responsibility—but not the expense—away from individuals and families and to politicians. Their programs resemble Ponzi schemes that must inevitably go bust, even as they feed bureaucracies and breed debt and dependency for many along the way.

Paved with Good Intentions

Writing in the November 13, 2013, edition of The New York Times (p. A-19), John Harwood noted how the assistance programs created by the nanny state naturally mushroomed:

Congress enacted Social Security in 1935 to provide benefits to retired workers. In 1939, benefits were extended to their dependents and survivors. Later the program grew to provide disability coverage, cover self-employed farmers and raise benefit levels.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society created Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s to provide health coverage for the elderly and the poor. They followed the same pattern.

In 1972, Congress extended Medicare eligibility to those under 65 on disability and with end-stage renal disease. In 2003, Congress passed President George W. Bush’s plan to offer coverage under Medicare for prescription drugs.

Lawmakers initially linked Medicaid coverage to those receiving welfare benefits, but over time expanded eligibility to other “poverty-related groups” such as pregnant women. In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which now covers eight million children whose families’ incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid.

All of these expensive, bureaucratic, and ultimately unsustainable programs sounded wonderful to many when they were enacted. Rarely were they judged on what they likely would yield down the road for us all. Supporters embraced them mostly because of what they would do for some in the near term. None of the advocates ever said, “In the not-too-distant future, these programs will grow like topsy and saddle the nation with trillions in debt, thereby jeopardizing those who depend upon them and the nation as a whole as well.”

Short Run, Some People

This is the essence of the statists’ welfare state: Rob Peter to pay Paul. Always promise more, and send a lot of the bills to generations yet unborn. Après moi, le déluge. And they have the nerve to sell it by claiming they are the compassionate ones. If their rhetoric matched their handiwork, their motto would be “Short Run, Some People.”

“Long Run, All People” should be a battle cry of those who embrace liberty. It seizes the moral high ground because it’s farsighted and inclusive—and it’s accurate, too. It challenges others to be thorough in their thinking, to consider the whole picture and not just the corners of it that capture their ephemeral attentions. Isn’t that what responsible adults are supposed to do? Today is the tomorrow that yesterday’s shortsighted statists didn’t bother to think about. The victims of their handiwork number in the millions, though the statists never saw them coming.

Half a century ago, W. Allen Wallis addressed this issue in this very magazine in his insightful article, “The Public Versus the Private Sector.” I urge you to give it a look. It’s “dated” only in a few examples and in a word choice here and there, which only underscores the timelessness of the core message.

I wish I could get a T-shirt and bumper sticker that say in large print, “Long Run, All People” and in small print, “Shrink Big Government.” Wouldn’t they spark some interesting conversations?

How might “Long Run, All People” be deployed with good effect in today’s context? I could produce some hypothetical examples, but I’d prefer to stimulate YOUR thoughts. So let me invite you, the reader, to put the comment section below to good use. Where, when, and how do you think this line of reasoning could change some minds in the right direction? Or is my case here overstated? All comments, suggestions, and examples welcome.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is