All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1965

Ill Respect Your Life If Youll Respect Mine

If a person were to say to you, “I’ll respect your life, if you’ll respect mine,” you might hastily react with, “Fair enough,” and let it go. But the chances are that, after a moment’s reflection, you’d begin to wonder what kind of a he is or what he had in mind. Did he think you were about to attack him? Or, had he been thinking of attacking you? Perhaps he was trying to throw you off guard before launching his attack? That he would even think of offering such a proposition certainly places him under a cloud of suspicion! You might except a child to thus bargain over whether to be good or not, but an adult…?

That you really would he saying to yourself, through such reflections, is that way, as a deal between persons involved. Someone has to begin, and the beginning consists of the unconditional, unilateral decision: “I’ll respect your life, and all life.” This is an act of faith, faith others will respond in kind to one’s conduct toward them.

Respect for private property had its beginning in that same way, then someone decided: I’ll not steal.” The idea never could have done come to fruitarian had the proportion been: “If you’ll not steal from me, I’ll not steal from you.” Someone, all by himself, had to begin not stealing, as an act of respect for his fellow men and an act of self-respect, self-confidence, self-responsibility.

Yes, the personal practice of freedom begins at home, with the individual. It begins with the unilateral, unconditional behavior of a person with a highly developed sense of moral responsibility, a sense of self-responsibility that grows out of self-respect. This must be the message of the admonition to love one’s neighbor as oneself. A truly self-respecting individual sees the wisdom of re­specting others, voluntarily and unconditionally acting toward them as he hopes they may react toward him, whether or not they have so acted in the past or agreed to act in the future.

The religious or moral case for the practice of the Golden Rule ought to be sufficient, but the practice also is sound from a strictly utilitarian point of view. It pays to respect the dignity of others and their rights to prop­erty. A very wealthy businessman once expressed the wish that everyone in the world might be wealthier than he. His point was that his services would be in even greater demand in such a society so blessed with riches. And the point would stand, whether a man has accumulated vast savings of his own, or not. In any event, whether wealthy or poor, it would be to his advantage to respect the property rights of all to whom he might hope to sell his own goods and services. Their property is all they have to offer him in exchange. And unless private property rights are recognized and mutually re­spected among men, there is no chance for the easy way of earning a living through specialization and voluntary exchange. It would be impossible to accumulate the sav­ings that represent the tools and capital necessary to create job op­portunities for workers. Unless property is respected as the foundation for voluntary produc­tion and trade, the only alterna­tive is a dog-eat-dog struggle that literally leaves each person fight­ing for his life. That would be the hard way to live, and not many of us could hope to last very long if we tried it.

Our Daily Bread

In the vast majority of our daily affairs, most of us uncon­sciously follow the easy way. If we want a loaf of bread or a can of beans, we simply go to a grocer and buy them; it never occurs to us that the grocer wouldn’t be there with his well-stocked shelves if we had failed to respect and uphold his rights to property. Nor will he be willing to sell to us unless he respects our right to the money (property) we offer in exchange for the bread and beans.

In contrast to this simple, easy way of life, suppose that we tried taking the bread we want through force. We’d probably organize the Amalgamated Militant Breadwin­ners of America in an attempt to outnumber and overpower the members of the Bakers Protective

Association—with the result that very little, if any, bread would be baked, or consumed. Not every­one would starve to death, of course; many would have died in battle. That would be the hard way of life, the penalty Nature levies upon those who will not respect life and property.

Now, it’s true that we may say to the baker, “I’ll give you 25 cents if you’ll give me a loaf of bread.” And at that stage of the bargaining or exchange process, there is a deal involved, a quid pro quo, something for something. But the point to be remembered is that prior to any contract of sale, each party must show unconditional respect for the other fellow’s prop­erty. Would you buy from anyone what you know is not his to sell? Your inclination, in that case, would be to take what you want, just as he did. So, property rights and trade go together, and tend to disappear together when either is threatened or jeopardized.

State and Federal Aid

This principle of respect for private property is not too diffi­cult to understand and practice at the local level among those we know and love. But distance from home tends to becloud the issue. It is far from clear to many per­sons why the state government should not be called upon to stand between those who want to pur­chase schooling for their children and those who want to provide such education. And an over­whelming majority of the elector­ate can be mustered in favor of “state aid” for education. Thus, property rights are violated; prop­erty is taken from some, without their express approval, and des­ignated for use by others who have not earned it. Lacking are both of the prerequisites for con­tinuing peaceful exchange: (1) a quid pro quo or something-for­something, and (2) the prior uni­lateral expression of self-respect and faith—”I’ll not steal.” The result is a chronic shortage of educational facilities—a result that can be predicted with abso­lute certainty any time the gov­ernment is invited or allowed to erect barriers between the willing buyers and the willing sellers of any particular commodity or ser­vice. If subsidies are offered to those in need of education, their “needs”—like any other subsidized “needs”—will expand beyond any possibility of satisfaction.

Rent control affords another ex­ample of the frustration of willing exchange. When the state or Fed­eral government is authorized to come between landlords and ten­ants, setting a price too low to balance supply and demand, the result will be a housing shortage.

When rental properties are thus confiscated, landlords will tend to divert their savings and efforts to other purposes. The higher the subsidy available to tenants, the more space they will want to oc­cupy; and their demand can never be satisfied by that method. The intervention at the state or Fed­eral level tends to blind and cor­rupt neighbors who otherwise might have respected one another and their rights to property.

International Trade

Finally, there are the questions of international trade, with the greatest possible distances and other barriers between buyers and sellers—where at least one gov­ernment and possibly several gov­ernments are involved. An Amer­ican importer might be quite will­ing to assure a Japanese exporter: “I’ll respect your property; I’ll not steal.” But by the time such an assurance can be delivered through our State Department and theirs, translated into diplomatic language, it most surely will be offered as a deal: “If you’ll first agree not to discriminate against our goods, we’ll not discriminate against yours.” This is like threat­ening a man: “If you cut off your nose to spite your face, I’ll cut off mine!”—as if that would serve him right.

The simple fact, of course, isthat it would be to the advantage of consumers to allow Japanese goods to enter the United States free of import taxes, whether or not the Japanese government taxes goods imported from the United States. The counter charge will be that this would deprive Amer­icans of jobs. The charge is un­founded when the “job” market is viewed as a whole. But, more important, since when is it the duty of any American to make work for others to do? There is no future in such a business. A busi­nessman’s duty is to provide goods or services customers are willing to buy. If he can do so without working, or without em­ploying anyone, more power and profit to him—the millennium will have arrived.

If anyone can buy goods from Japan for less than his cost of producing or buying them else­where, he should be free to do so — and no one would be injured as a consequence. This, like any other sound business practice, would simply free scarce factors of pro­duction for other and more profit­able uses. His ability to ferret out better opportunities to serve and profit is the businessman’s only excuse for existence as an entre­preneur. If this involves creative work for others, fine; but there never has been and never will be a market demand for work as such—the work must at least promise to yield something that workers, and customers, want.

Though the full strength of logic favors free trade interna­tionally, as well as domestically, the stubborn myth prevails that especially in international affairs one should never unilaterally offer not to steal, not to kill, not to dis­criminate against the products, the services, or the persons of peaceful individuals. Misdirected nationalism blinds one to the fact that, by such discrimination, the nose he cuts off is his own.

Such border barriers to the free movement of goods and services (people) make tempting military targets, and thus afford dubious protection for the businesses or the lives of citizens. Yet, we hear it everywhere, every day: “If you’ll first reduce your tariffs, we’ll re­duce ours. ” “If you’ll stop inflat­ing your currency, we’ll stop in­flating ours.” “If you’ll ship in our merchant vessels, we’ll ship in yours.” “If you’ll grant rights of way to our airlines, we’ll ac­commodate yours.” “If you’ll mod­erate your farm support policies, we’ll moderate ours.” “If you’ll re­spect and protect private property in your country, we’ll do so in ours.” “If you’ll let us use your ca­nal, you may use ours.” “If you’ll cancel your flight to Mars, we’ll cancel ours.” “If you’ll stop med­dling in our business, we’ll stop meddling in yours.”

This is by no means the entire list, but it is sufficient to illustrate the confusion concerning proper procedure for international trade. This partial listing also may af­ford a clue as to the cause of the confusion: in most of these situ­ations there is no clear title of ownership; the commodity or ser­vice is either owned or regulated by the government; instead of a strictly voluntary transaction be­tween willing buyers and willing sellers, there has been injected an element of compulsion. This may well be the major reason why trad­ing seems so complex at the inter­national level. But it also may be the reason why we find complica­tions arising as they often do in domestic transactions where na­tional, state, or local governments have intervened with regulations and controls of one kind or another that cloud the titles of ownership and interfere with the seller’s or buyer’s freedom of choice.

A Corrupting Use of Power

Are we saying that governments are a positive evil when they con­stitute barriers between willing buyers and willing sellers and thus frustrate individuals? Yes, this is what we are saying, that governmental force or coercion is out of order when it is employed in a socialistic manner to inter­fere with the creative activities and voluntary relationships among peaceful persons. This is how gov­ernments behave when they are constituted or organized upon the contractual and unrealistic prin­ciple of “I’ll respect your life if you’ll respect mine.”

We are not saying that this is necessarily the foundation for gov­ernment or that government has to be socialistic and disruptive of peaceful human affairs. Among peaceful persons who have individ­ually recognized the morality and wisdom of volunteering unilater­ally not to kill, not to steal, not to injure another deliberately, there would be no need for gov­ernment if everyone were capable of living according to his good intentions. Yet, within a society primarily comprised of property-respecting, peaceful persons, indi­viduals make mistakes; and there is a place for an organized agencyof force with sufficient power to suppress or discourage any errant threat to life or property. One may solemnly pledge not to break the peace himself and yet con­sistently advocate a government police force strong enough to over­come and subdue him if in a mo­ment of rashness he should forget or violate his pledge. Self-control is a most difficult thing; a prop­erly limited government is a form of organized self-control and may be helpful in that limited role. But when government exceeds that very limited purpose and begins placing barriers between willing buyers and sellers, it then be­comes the positive evil we know as socialism and all of its varia­tions.

When anyone tries to make a deal to respect your life if you’ll respect his, tell him to forget it—but respect his life anyway, be­cause it is the right thing to do.

Good all the Way

As moral guides, the Golden Rule and the Decalogue are not evil and dangerous things, like a painkilling drug, to be taken in cautious moderation, if at all. Presuming them to be the basic guides of what is right and good for civilized man, one cannot overindulge in them. Good need not be practiced in moderation.

F. A. Harper, Morals and the Welfare State

  • 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.