All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1984

Legal Plunder: Origin and Consequences

Dr. Russell, recently retired from a full schedule of academic work, continues free-lance consulting, lecturing and writing from his home in Westchester County, New York.
      This is one of a series of articles examining current interventions of the welfare state in the light of warnings from the French economist and statesman, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850).

A cynic once claimed that the first labor-saving device was robbery. Perhaps so, but I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority of us would still rather work for a living than to steal (illegal plunder) or to demand handouts from government (legal plunder). The minority of us who wouldn’t, however, is large enough to warrant our serious attention, especially since that minority is growing.

Frederic Bastiat believed, as set forth in The Law, that there is a “tendency that is common among people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This is no rash accusation. Nor does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit. The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies. This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of man—in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.

“Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property.

“But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.

“Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain—and since labor is pain in itself—it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.

“When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor.

“It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work.”

Pain vs. Pleasure

Bastiat’s “pain-pleasure” explanation of economic activity was also favored by several of the early English economists. And it’s still popular today as a basic explanation for using machines to replace human labor. In that connection, it shows up in several of Bastiat’s stories and explanations.

Whether or not Bastiat was justified in including all of us (mankind) in his identification of a “fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work,” it’s impossible to deny that it applies to a large (and growing) minority of us. And from time to time, it may well indeed apply to all of us. Increasingly we American people are turning to our government to solve our social and economic problems. Examples of this “fatal tendency” are programs to support farm prices, minimum wage laws, protective tariffs and other restrictions against international trade, subsidies to start businesses and more subsidies to stay in business, government-supported medical care, compulsory unionism, and a thousand other programs whereby our government takes money from those who have earned it and .gives it to those who haven’t, i.e., legal plunder.

At one time or another, it’s almost certain that all of us did (and probably still do) support a few of these government programs whereby we profit at the expense of others, perhaps without even realizing it. As merely one example of the cause—and the terrible consequences—of this philosophy in action, I’ll here concentrate on the familiar social welfare programs of our state and federal governments. And since our most precious resource is our children, I’ll pay special attention to the various government programs designed to help young people.

I’m convinced that these social welfare programs are doing far more harm than good to our children. They are destroying far more young people (along with us parents) than they are helping.

I’m well aware of the seriousness of that accusation, but the proof is painfully obvious. Just look around you at what’s going on among the “disadvantaged” teen- agers in our crime-ridden cities. Murder, mutilation, rape (so casually that one is reminded of rabbits), drugs, arson, grand theft. You name it and observe that it has doubled, trebled, and quadrupled as our various government welfare agencies have begun to double, treble, and quadruple their spending programs to improve the situation.

I find a positive correlation between the two. For every additional billion dollars spent by government to help disadvantaged children, the number of children joining street gangs—or turning alone to violence—goes up in proportion. The positive relationship between increased social programs by government to help disadvantaged children and a corresponding increase in juvenile crime isn’t even open to serious debate; it’s clearly there for everyone to see. Try as you will, you can’t avoid seeing it. It’s “staple diet” for newspapers, magazines, movies, documentaries, and the evening news on TV.

And always where you find the most government welfare workers and programs and money, you also find the largest number of corrupted (destroyed) young people. Always. And I’m not greatly impressed by the statistician who argues, “Look, dummy, the reason the most welfare workers and dollars are there is because the high crime rate brought them there.” Not so; the welfare programs themselves are the cause of the increased crime rate.

Plunder Sanctioned

As Bastiat warned us, once legal plunder becomes socially acceptable, the fatal tendency is for all to join in. The result is disaster. In due course, the distinction between legal plunder and illegal plunder tends to blur. The justification offered by the recipients of legal plunder is that, in one way or another, they’re “disadvantaged” and really need the money. The rationalization offered by the illegal plunderers is markedly similar. Just ask them. They’re never guilty, not really. It’s not their fault they were born poor—and you rich. Also, it’s not fair.

I remember well when our best people—our ministers and teachers, as well as the sociologists—promised a decrease in criminal activities among our youth if disadvantaged children were only given better educational facilities (most especially integrated government schools to make everybody equal), better medical care (which would be free, of course), a better diet (which could best be realized in a dignified fashion through the use of food stamps and similar allotments), public housing (with subsidized rents or no rents at all), and so on and so on.

Since most of us really do want to help—and since the promised results were so desirable and enticing—we initiated every social program asked for. The situation deteriorated. We doubled the number of welfare programs and quadrupled the amount of tax-money to support them. The situation got worse; there was more poverty and crime, not less. We passed new laws and voted even more money; much of it to build more prisons to house the criminals created by the social programs.

Now I’m well aware that some people were helped, but the net result has been disaster—most especially for the disadvantaged children who must suffer the fearful consequences of these misguided programs that tend to keep them confined permanently to their crime-ridden slums. Some dispensers of government aid actually noticed that result, and suggested razing the slum buildings and replacing them with large apartment complexes. It was done, on a massive scale—not really for the disadvantaged people, but to them.

I really can’t condemn the teenagers unduly for burning down the houses, destroying the elevators, and swapping the food stamps for drugs. At least that action brings temporary excitement and good feeling to hopeless lives. I understand because, I too, was a disadvantaged kid; after several years of poverty and stealing, I finally ended up in an orphanage at age 12. And had I been located in one of those “neighborhoods of the lost”—instead of in a village in the mountains—I’ve no doubt I’d have been a gang member, and probably a gang leader.

And do remember, please, that this situation is totally unrelated to color; I’m white, as are most of the young (and adult) criminals I’ve known. In fact, I’m not personally acquainted with even one black criminal. Even so, I doubt you’d have too much trouble finding black and brown and oriental criminals, and doubtless a few native American criminals also—especially if they’re on government welfare rolls.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am—not at the disadvantaged children who are sinking ever deeper into the growing quagmire of violence and crime, but at us “good people” who turned to government (the police force) for a solution to social problems that must be solved voluntarily or not at all. As Bastiat said, there is a fatal tendency in all of us to turn to legal plunder (when it’s readily available) to do for us (and others) what we should properly do for ourselves (and others).

There’s a clear reason for the degrading results of these programs. They appeal to our worst emotions instead of our best. All human beings are a combination of both good and evil impulses and desires. (Feel free to define the terms “good and evil” any way you like; whatever definition pleases you, that’s the one I’m here using.) The current welfare programs are designed to appeal to our greed, to our desire to avoid personal responsibility and to use our money and efforts exclusively for our own material wants. They appeal to our acquisitive instincts, to our natural impulse to camouflage our actions by rationalizing them, to our desire to live at the expense of others (legal plunder) by claiming a “human right” to do so. They cater to our willingness to “conceal” in order to increase physical well-being and gratification. They are designed to exploit our propensity to see all issues in terms of immediate and personal needs and wants. Those programs encourage our desire to justify selfish actions by claiming we’re doing it for the good of others—especially for children and old people. These welfare laws con us into dreaming of how we think life ought to be instead of facing life as it really is. We tend to become planners instead of producers.

And when the number of planner-recipients approaches the number of exploited producers, the programs fail—e.g., the ratio of producers to receivers in our Social Security program (all forms) has dropped from 15 to 1, down to less than 3 to 1, and is still going down steadily. If it weren’t so desperately tragic for so many millions of gullible people, one might laugh at our frantic efforts to prop up an obvious disaster for a “few more years.”

A Selfish Approach

In short, our government welfare programs are designed to appeal to our selfish and nonproductive instincts, and in no way to our generous and productive instincts. The end result of that approach necessarily must be disaster—most especially for the increasing number of disadvantaged children who are being created and victimized by it.

This result is guaranteed by a universal principle of human action we all understand and follow, i.e., if you want more of anything (including children) you can increase the production of it by paying more. You and I live and work and produce according to that principle every day. So does everyone else, in all nations and under every form of government. It determines how many cars are produced, as well as how much cocaine is made available. Here are a few examples of how this principle works in the area of welfare programs and children (birth rates), an area of increasing importance all over the world.

In Sweden, the low birth rate is of great concern to the government; it wishes to increase it. And the allocation of scarce housing is one of several welfare programs the Swedish government uses to encourage the production of more Swedish babies. (This objective and procedure isn’t some evil idea they’re concealing; the program is discussed quite openly.)

During my two visits to Stockholm in the 1960s, I found that the waiting time for an apartment was from four to ten years. But a woman could move to the top of the waiting list for scarce and low-rent housing if she became pregnant. That’s a most persuasive production bonus in a society where there’s a housing shortage.

Here in the United States, we don’t discuss this same issue and procedure at all openly. In fact, we usually deny it. But the result here is the same as in Sweden, whatever our intentions; welfare mothers with four children necessarily get “more housing” than do welfare mothers with only one child. That’s quite understandable, and I don’t know any other logical way the government could administer its welfare programs. I do know, however, what the results are likely to be.

Here’s a personal incident that happened in Bastiat’s own country; it’s a story he’d have enjoyed, and would certainly have used in one of his speeches to his fellow-legislators in the Chamber of Deputies. In France with its declining birth rate, a friend of mine in Paris is paid far more (directly and indirectly) by government for his five young children than he’s paid (take home) by his employer. He once joked to me that his family is a two-job, two-income family; his wife is paid for producing children while he’s paid for producing lectures. And since her product is more in demand than his, understandably she’s paid more. He laughed (a bit wryly, I thought) as he concluded, “If I can persuade her to produce just one more, I can retire.”

Subsidized Babies

We never point out that same connection between income and children in the United States. We merely list (without explaining why) the increasing number of households without a working male parent. In our metropolitan areas, the payment of various direct and indirect subsidies to families with dependent children usually adds up to considerably more than the parent could earn at any available job. And so on, in every nation of the western world, with the government using various welfare programs to encourage the production of more human beings, sometimes admitted and sometimes denied. (In China, this same principle is followed, but in reverse; the more children you have, the less government aid you get. The principle, of course, works negatively as well as positively.)

In college sociology texts, the authors sometimes demonstrate their deductive ability by explaining why families on farms used to be so large, while city families were usually smaller. “Children on farms were an economic asset to their parents,” they explain, “while city kids were an economic cost.” So far, so good; I understand the principle and how it works. But then they frequently spoil it by adding, “Of course, that’s not true today, either on farms or in cities.” You want to bet?

In fairness to the governments of Sweden and France, however, I must add that those subsidized children are not thereby “disadvantaged” any more than are the citizens in general. After all, the nation needs those children, for one purpose or another. Thus the subsidies don’t lock them into a situation that’s likely to turn them toward crime in an effort to get out. But that’s not the situation at all here in the United States where the high birthrate among welfare families (of all colors) tends to insure that most of those disadvantaged and subsidized children are likely to remain in their deadening locations with little hope of ever moving up. There just doesn’t seem to be many ways for them to escape from it—except by the always-present and seemingly attractive route offered by crime.

When I try to discuss this problem with some of my more “socially conscious” colleagues, they tend to become somewhat incoherent and begin sputtering inane remarks like, “What would you do, let them starve?”

No, I wouldn’t. And neither would you. It’s just that in our sincere desire to help, we’ve collectively chosen the wrong direction. I agree with Bastiat who claimed that the primary cause of our increasingly destructive social problems is a drift away from independence and responsibility and into a subservience to government that comes automatically when we engage in legal plunder. The central theme of his book, The Law, is that if government devoted itself solely to protecting equally the lives, liberty, and property of everyone, then peace and prosperity would soon be the natural state of affairs.

As Bastiat summarized it: “If everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties [liberty] and the free disposition of the fruits of his labor [i.e., private property in a free market economy], social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.”