All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1961

Let’s Not Do It Ourselves

To shirk personal responsibility and “let George do it”—or in the expectation that the government will fulfill the obligation—is a certain step away from freedom toward compulsory collectivism. But it is also possible to approach socialism from the opposite direc­tion, as when men who are steeped in the tradition and practice of competitive private enterprise try to thwart anticipated governmen­tal expansion by introducing a lo­cal or private brand of collectiv­ism. How often we pressure one another into actions harmful to everyone concerned with no more logical excuse than “if we don’t do something, the government will”—or worse yet, “if our govern­ment doesn’t do something, the Soviets will.”

Consider modern developments at the local school district level, for instance, involving costly building programs and adminis­trative procedures and curricu­lum changes. Rising school taxes raise cries for more and more state “aid,” often under the mis­apprehension that this will fore­stall further federal “aid” and federal control over education. But the record seems to show that the higher the local school tax bill, and the greater the reliance on state aid, the greater is the urge to throw the entire responsibility in­to the lap of Uncle Sam.

There are numerous other ex­amples of local government actions that eventually invite, rather than preclude, federal subsidy or inter­vention—housing projects, high­ways, hospitals, and so on—but it must also be recognized that many moves toward socialism begin as strictly voluntary or private ventures. This is not to question the general principles and practices of competitive private enterprise and voluntary cooperation which largely account for the high and rising standards of living in the United States and other compara­tively free nations of the world. Great good comes through special­ization and division of labor and voluntary exchange in a free mar­ket, as buyers and sellers cooper­ate and compete to their mutual advantage. But freedom also al­lows men to associate or cooperate in ventures that fail or that prove harmful to themselves and to others, as when they lead toward socialism and eventual coercion.

Examples of this voluntary march toward socialism may be found in the activities of various professional groups. Just now, for instance, there is grave concern among members of the medical profession about the threat of so­cialized medicine in the United States, which would involve such controls and regulations as:

1.       Government licensing of doc­tors.

2.       Government operation and control of medical schools.

3.       Government determination of medical standards and prac­tices.

4.         Government provision of equipment and facilities.

5.       Government regulation of doc­tors’ fees and control of prices of medical supplies and serv­ices.

6.         Government rationing of sup­plies and services rendered scarce through price control.

7.       Government taxation to cover costs, rather than free mar­ket pricing in response to supply and demand.

Though incomplete, this list at least suggests why doctors might oppose socialized medicine. But consider for a moment what some doctors themselves have done, in­dividually or in groups, to pro­mote the very controls now de­plored.

The Licensing Prerogative

If any person or any group is to have the power to grant or deny a license to practice medicine, why shouldn’t this government-like power be exercised by the government? Why, above all, should the members of a given professional or occupational group be allowed to decide whether or not new members are to be ad­mitted to practice or work in that field? And if there is to be a li­censing agency with governmental powers, should it not also control the schools or training programs for prospective licensees and as­sume responsibility for profes­sional standards and practices?

It is one thing to associate voluntarily with others of a profes­sion to improve one’s own under­standing and skill, but the tempta­tion—once the association is for­malized—is to use it to set stand­ards and controls not only for willing members but for nonmem­bers as well. And this “voluntary” assumption of governmental pow­ers is a long step toward the kind of government control that spells socialism.

If a local, state, or national medical association attempts to pass judgment on or to regulate the fees a doctor may ask for a given service, the stage is set for government price control. The growing practice by individuals and groups of doctors to adjust their fees to the size of each pa­tient’s income is certainly not a coercive practice—but neither is it sound economic procedure for equating the demand for medical service with the available supply. Blue Cross and Blue Shield insur­ance programs, voluntarily initi­ated, are taking on more and more of the characteristics of socialized medicine, and may well provide the framework for its administra­tion if and when it comes.

There is no denying that the trend is toward government con­trol of medicine in the United States; and the question con­fronting every doctor and patient who deplores that trend is whether or not he is unwittingly con­tributing to it under the banner: “If we don’t do something, the government will.”

Other Paths to Controls

It would be wrong to imply that medical associations are the only groups moving toward so­cialism through misdirected ef­forts to avoid it. The licensing of barbers probably was their own idea; lawyers voluntarily organize and support the bar associations that lead to licensing and increas­ing government regulation and control of the profession; mer­chants organize chambers of com­merce to put their community on its own feet and then degenerate into pressure groups to render the community dependent on federal subsidy; economists organize so­cieties which become the breeding ground for farm support pro­grams, deficit financing, federal regulation and control of industry, commerce, and people; and so it goes in one professional organiza­tion after another.

Businessmen in the early thir­ties voluntarily and patriotically agreed not to overproduce, or un­dersell competitors, or reduce wage rates. During the early days of World War II they agreed not to raise prices, though they could not begin to satisfy demand at such “fair” prices. Oil producers and importers agree to abide by “voluntary” production or import quotas. And these voluntary de­partures from competitive prac­tice in a free market, no matter how well-meant, inevitably lead to price and wage and rent control, rationing and regulation by the federal government.

Consider also the paternalistic practices of businessmen in offer­ing pensions, medical care, recre­ational facilities, and all sorts of “free” fringe benefits, whether or not an employee wants to get his pay in such form. All such meas­ures were undoubtedly rational­ized in part to keep the govern­ment out of these particular areas. But the result has been govern­ment expansion of social security, medical care, recreational facili­ties, and other welfare measures, built in and around and upon the industrial programs.

Even the charitable inclina­tions of mankind have been or­ganized into ever bigger and bet­ter community chests, united funds, Red Cross, polio and can­cer and tuberculosis societies, joint college fund-raising drives, church mergers, social action hierarchies—until it is a very short step from there to socialism, when the government takes over, organization and all.

Other examples abound of the disastrous consequences when in­dividuals organize to get a job done “voluntarily” before the gov­ernment does it. This is not to deny that many worthy aims and objectives have been achieved through voluntary cooperation. But the difference is in the nature of the objective—of the job to be done. If it is truly worthy of vol­untary support, then it can and should be done voluntarily. But if it is not—if it was a misguided effort from the beginning—it cannot succeed voluntarily and will have to be done by the gov­ernment, through powers of coer­cion and taxation, if it is to be done at all.

Limited Government

According to the ideals of com­petitive private enterprise upon which this nation was founded and has prospered, a common and gen­eral respect for life and property should leave comparatively little need for government action. Let the government confine itself to the suppression of private out­breaks of violence and fraud and to defense against external ag­gression. In other words, if there is to be any coercion at all, let this coercive force be concentrated in the hands of government for the sole purpose of maintaining the peace and protecting the lives and private property of peaceful citizens.

Needless to say, this ideal of limited government has not been upheld; and in our time we have seen the reckless expansion of government into practically every field of human action, thus dis­turbing rather than maintaining the peace for which it was consti­tuted. Even so, this is no proper excuse for private resort to coer­cive practices on the flimsy grounds that otherwise the gov­ernment would do it. Coercion is the government’s business, and the business of individuals is to respect life and property and avoid any private association for coercive purposes. The moment any one of us or any group of us initiates force against others, we move away from freedom toward compulsory collectivism.



Every Man a King

Liberty, or the right to act as one wills according to his wisdom and conscience, is sometimes charged with being “license” and totally irresponsible conduct. But, on the contrary, responsibility of the highest order is required in a liberal society. What social design could be more challenging, in terms of responsibility, self-discipline, and self-control, than that of liberalism in its require­ments of self-restraint; in avoiding trespass on the rights and the property of others; in its respect for the rights of others iv dis­agree without precipitating conflict? Liberty requires the highest order of conduct in its practice.

The disciplines of liberty, however, have their rewards. “Every man a king” has had great appeal as a political slogan. The near­est possible approach to it is to be found in a liberal society, in which everyone is king over his own affairs to the greatest possible extent. At the other extreme, one man is king over all men instead of every man being king to a degree.

F. A. Harper

Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery

  • 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.