All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1956

Economics, Inter Alia

Dr. Poirot is a member of the staff of the Foundation [or Economic Education.

Inter Alia is a Latin phrase meaning “among other things,’” and that is precisely the place to look for the economic policies of the United Nations. Article 55 of the Charter authorizes the United Nations to promote, inter alia, “higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development.” And each year, hundreds of books and pamphlets pour forth from the organization in furtherance of that objective.

Now, it is one thing to believe that individuals are self-responsible and that they may be trusted with the ownership of private property. In that case, economics simply pertains to the peaceful application of useful things to the satisfaction of human wants, as implemented by the processes of competitive bargaining and voluntary exchange.

But “economics, inter alia.” is not the simple economics of voluntary exchange. Among other things, it is not economics at all; it is politics. And politics is always loaded with inter alia—with miscellaneous considerations—especially at the international or world level. It cannot be otherwise. The theory of political action holds that even if the individual knows what he wants, he probably does not know best how to get it or use it. Public officials presume to guide an irresponsible electorate. Property is subject to seizure for “public needs.” And there are no solid foundations for competitive bargaining and voluntary exchange.

Sifting through voluminous United Nations publications might eventually reveal the platform for “economics, inter alia.” But months of careful sifting would yield no material variation from the measures set forth in the Communist Manifesto of more than a century ago.

Though Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were speaking in 1848 of the application of “economics, inter alia” within a country, they must surely have had in mind that theirs was a blueprint for world government—an international program which could not logically be restrained within the bounds of nationalism. Private property and private enterprise anywhere in the world must always be considered by master planners as a challenge and fair game. There can be no logical stopping place, short of world government, for the person who thinks he is qualified to plan the lives of others.

It is not proposed here that the United Nations brand of “economics, inter alia.” originated with Marx and Engels—only that nothing new has been added since their outline of the doctrine. The wording changes through the years. Instead of calling for “abolition of property in land” (Manifesto) the United Nations calls for “changes in deep-rooted customs and practices, resettlement, land reform, large-scale irrigation and conservation projects, and other far-reaching actions” (U.N., Preliminary Report on the World Social Situation, 1952, p. 4), and periodically publishes reports on the “progress” of land-reform measures in various nations.

It isn’t necessary for the United Nations to advocate “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” Few, if any, member nations have failed to adopt that socialistic measure, and it certainly is the method by which United Nations projects are financed.

Instead of the negative “abolition of all right of inheritance” (Manifesto) the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights accentuates the positive “right of everyone” to food, clothing, social security, adequate housing, adequate standard of living, the highest standard of health obtainable, inter alia. The International Labor Organization, remnant from the League of Nations, is the champion of this “human rights” branch of inter alia.

The United Nations idea, of course, affords no opportunity for emigration or rebellion, so there need be no special confiscation procedures against “the property of all emigrants and rebels” (Manifesto). “Centralization of credit in the hands of the State” (Manifesto) has its United Nations counterpart in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The relative youth of the United Nations probably explains why there has not been more action toward the “centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State” and the “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan” (Manifesto). But the respective national governments of the world, including our own, have already moved far in the direction of nationalized transportation, communication, and industry generally. This machinery of State ownership and control stands ready for the time when the United Nations wants to take charge. Meanwhile, the United Nations emphasis on State control of the “right to work” sounds suspiciously like the Marxian “equal liability of all to labor” (Manifesto). And what else is the modern public works project if not the “establishment of industrial armies” (Manifesto)?

The United Nations certainly does not object to the “combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries: gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of population over the country” (Manifesto). But the United Nations speaks more of the obligations of the industrialized nations to the underdeveloped nations, the former being the international equivalent of “town,” whereas the poorer nations represent the “country.”

Like the Communist Manifesto, the International Covenant on Human Rights concludes with a declaration “that primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all.”

The correlation between the doctrines of compulsory socialism expounded by Karl Marx and the so-called economic policies of the United Nations should be clear enough to anyone who cares to compare them. But what is the satisfaction of showing the socialistic nature of the United Nations? So what?

Are people supposed to turn with horror from anything socialistic, just because the ideas may be traced back at least as far as the writings of Marx? Besides, haven’t most of the Marxian ideas become acceptable and respectable in the United States? Public land, graduated income and inheritance taxes, nationalized banking and communication and transportation, controlled industry and agriculture, full employment, public works, rural rehabilitation, and government schools are “old stuff” to Americans. And there are among us any number of “duly accredited economists” who would assure the world, if necessary, that all of these measures are economically sound. If the United Nations ideas are socialistic, then that may be precisely why they appeal to great numbers of American citizens who firmly believe in socialism provided that it does not emanate directly from Moscow.

On the other hand, there are also many citizens of the United States who can recognize socialism in most of its forms and who would like to cleanse the United Nations of socialistic practices. Of this group, some believe that the problem is to displace the socialistic ideas of United Nations delegates with sound economic principles. They want to keep the United Nations Organization as “an instrument of world peace” and use it for the implementation of free trade, for the protection of rights to private property, and for the preservation of the freedom of the individual. But theirs is the greatest of all illusions, for they have not learned that overextended government is the most dangerous of all threats to personal freedom. A world federation of national governments merely compounds the coercive power of any one of those governments to deprive any one citizen of his life, liberty, and property—his economic freedom.

As an example, consider the “full employment” concept of “economies, inter alia.” Until a person understands that employment is not an end in itself, but only a means of exchanging human effort for things more personally satisfying than leisure, he will not see the futility in compulsory schemes for “full employment.”

Work, as such, is not necessarily a desirable economic goal. If it is a bowl of rice that a man wants more than anything in the world, why should he labor to produce, for himself or for anyone else, something that is not convertible into a bowl of rice? Such exertion would only increase his hunger. He will work for other things if and when he sees the value of them. And until then, who is to say that those other things are more valuable to the man than rice or just plain leisure?

The theory of man in a continuous rat race of activity is the theory of a person who thinks he knows what is best for others. Just keep them busy! Unfortunately that is the theory behind the “full employment” program of those who want to do good to the no-gooder. They suppose that business will be stimulated by a program of giving products away instead of selling them; and those who wait in line to receive the tax-collected goods of compulsory “charity” are said to be employed!

The United Nations subscribes to the well-worn cliche: The problem of production has been solved; the remaining problem is to achieve more equitable distribution (Preliminary Report on the World Social Situation, 1952, p. 3). Marx thought the same in 1848, yet in the century since then, Americans and others with respect enough for private property and tolerance enough for competitive bargaining in a free market have accomplished miracles of production of goods and services unimaginable in the time of Marx. And the poorest among us have fared better than Marx could have provided, simply because the most capable were free to move out ahead and set new goals toward which others might voluntarily aim their efforts.

The International Labor Organization, now integrated into the United Nations, has stood since World War I for the “right” to a job, the “right” to a standard of living, the “right” to a minimum wage or a maximum work week, the “right” to a “fair” price, the “right” to bargain collectively, the “right” to security against the adversities and hazards: of life, such as old age and disability. These “human rights” are indeed different from property rights, for they rest on a denial of the basic concept of property rights. They are not freedoms or immunities assured to all persons alike. They are special privileges conferred upon some persons at the expense of others.

Consider, for example, the so-called right to a job. This is a fine-sounding phrase that evokes an emotional response. It depicts an unemployed man and his family suffering hardship through no fault of their own. But it offers no clue as to who else might have been at fault. One man’s “right” to a job implies an obligation on the part of someone else to give him a job. Who has any such obligation?

In an economy of private enterprise, a job arises in anticipation of what consumers will want in the market place. An employer’s capacity to offer jobs depends upon how well he understands the market pattern of consumer preferences. He has no right of control over the market. He has no power to control consumer choices. There is a limit to his capacity to provide jobs. And in the final analysis, an employee’s so-called right to a job is determined by what consumers think the product or service is worth to them.

The alternative, embodied within the “economics, inter alia.” of the United Nations, is to create a single employer the government—with a monopoly power over consumers. With such unlimited power to tax the earnings and the savings of the productive and the thrifty, this proposed international monopoly might temporarily carry on the pretense of paying more for labor than it is worth, dispensing “job rights” to those who vote “right.”

But once the remnants of private property have been consumed and free citizens have degenerated into wards of the United Nations, who then will replenish the coffers from which “human rights” are to be dispensed? The proponents of “economics, inter alia.” might well face that question before it is too late.

The Post Office Monopoly

I think the Post Office is a clear example of the way in which fetters can be worn for so long that people look on them as natural human appendages. Not that there is no criticism of the Post Office—far from it—but the criticism is confined to points of detail; it is not radical. Rarely is the question put: Why should the Post Office be a State monopoly?

Most people today imagine that the State went into the letter-carrying business because private enterprise had failed, or was unable to provide an adequate service. They are wrong. The State, under Elizabeth, forcibly monopolized an existing business because it wished to be able to know what its subjects were writing to each other. Today many people regard the Post Office as efficient, forgetting that such a judgment requires a basis of comparison, and comparison there is none, just because the business is a monopoly. Let me record my conviction that if the State would permit competition in letter-carrying, it would be beaten out of business in a very few years.

The usual defense of a State system is that under competition people living in remote districts would have to pay more for the service. I do not know why people who choose to live in such districts should expect to have a postal service as cheaply as people in populated areas; it costs a man in Glasgow, for instance, more to get to Piccadilly Circus than it now costs me. But if the convenience of uniform postage were found to outweigh the economy of cheap postage in populated areas, there would be found private firms to adopt the principle of uniform postage, and they would still beat the State Post Office out of business.

Henry Meulen, The Individualist,
London. December 1955

  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.