All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1995

Cliches of Politics

These Fallacies Have Drained the Lifeblood of Our Economic Prosperity


There’s much truth in the old saying that it’s not so much what people don’t know that hurts them, as what they know that just isn’t so. Indeed, when things we know that aren’t so are used to shape public policy, it hurts not only those who harbor the misinformation, but virtually everyone falling under the jurisdiction of such misguided policy. The Foundation for Economic Education counters such superficially plausible but fundamentally wrong-headed ideas in Cliches of Politics. Edited by Mark Spangler, it lists and refutes 83 economic fallacies which have proven to be leech-like both in their tenacious hold on the public mind and their proclivity to drain the life-blood of our economic prosperity. While most of the 83 appear here for the first time, 27 “classic cliches” originally appeared in FEE’s 1970 volume Cliches of Socialism.

Just how much of a stronghold these nuggets of misinformation have attained was evident in President Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union Address, which included either explicitly or implicitly no fewer than six of the cliches debunked in these pages. Had the President read, understood, and taken to heart Tibor Machan’s expose of national service as, “a ploy, once again, to extract unpaid work from unsuspecting and gullible folks, another type of involuntary servitude,” which is at best, “a wasteful way to give direction to human works” (p. 289), he would not continue to regard it as the accomplishment of which he is most proud. Had he not swallowed hook, line, and sinker the cliche that, “the government must set standards for living and working conditions,” he would not have proposed a boost in the employment-killing minimum wage. Only someone enamored of the shopworn assertion that, “government should guarantee freedom from want,” could contend that ceasing to subsidize out-of-wedlock births is somehow punishing people, “just because they happen to be poor.” Paul Poirot’s critique of that cliche in these pages is shaped by the insight that subsidizing failure breeds even more failure.

Characteristic of the FEE approach to economic issues is its willingness to go beyond mere cost-benefit considerations to focus as well on the morality of the actions imposed. Entry after entry in this book serves as evidence of this. Thus, Cecil Bohannon’s refutation of the cliche that “food is a right” rests not only on the recognition that government attempts to guarantee a right to food invariably destroy the incentives to produce food, but that they do so at the expense of the rights of food producers. Similarly, Robert Higgs counters the claim that, “in a national emergency, government must control the economy,” by alluding to the inevitable distortions created by such control, but he clinches his argument by declaring that, “even if the government were more capable, it would not be justified in using its coercive powers for any and all purposes.” This volume leaves no doubt, as if there ever were any, which side FEE is on in what Murray Rothbard calls “the eternal struggle between morality and immoraliy, between liberty and coercion.”

Cliches of Politics challenges the statist conventional wisdom on every front. Whether the false notion under consideration involves the nature of rights or foreign trade, regulatory policy or income inequality, health care or political philosophy, it is handled with dispatch. For the uninitiated, this book is a virtual crash course in FEE’s freedom philosophy. For those already well acquainted with these ideas, it provides clear, concise, and quotable articulations of them. Anyone who learns the lessons put forth in this book need never fear entering the battle of ideas unarmed.

Not only was Spangler judicious in his selection of the most harmful and well-entrenched bromides to attack, but he has assembled a veritable “all star team” of free-market thinkers past and present to assist him in that effort. Among the most prominent are FEE founder Leonard Read, current FEE president Hans Sennholz, Henry Hazlitt, Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Llewellyn Rockwell, Robert Higgs, and Tibor Machan. I’ll take them on my side any day.