All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1991

Perspective: Nurturing Good or Evil

C. S. Lewis, in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, reminds us that good and evil do not spring up in a moral vacuum. He writes: “The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in dean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”

Thus, for instance, we find the roots of Nazism in the works of seemingly genteel philosophers who long predated the rise of Adolf Hitler. And, to cite a more felicitous example, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was inspired by the writings of John Locke, who died 40 years before Jefferson’s birth.

So it is with all social movements. Good and evil take years to nurture. The lives of children yet un born will be affected by our thoughts, our examples, our actions. It takes time to improve the world, and we won’t be around to get the final verdict. But we have the rest of our lives to improve ourselves.

—Brian Summers

Cheap Lunches

The slogan “There is no free lunch” seems to imply that we have to pay for everything we get. Here a good thought is going wrong by being applied to situations it was not designed for. This slogan was originally intended to suggest that the government cannot supply free lunches to all of us, that there is no magic trick by which we can increase our total national resources by passing laws and setting up bureaucracies; rather, we as taxpayers have to pay indirectly, sometime.

In other contexts, however, there are free (or below full cost) lunches all the time. None of us always pays the full cost of production for what we get. In the modern world each generation gets its lunch at a lower cost of labor than did earlier generations, because earlier generations responded to their economic problems with ingenuity and energy. Our ancestors bequeathed us the intellectual wherewithal to get our lunch, if not entirely free, at least much cheaper than if we had to start from scratch. Compare what we “pay” to what Europeans had to “pay” for lunch and the other meals a few hundred years ago. They paid most of every day’s work, whereas we can buy the same amount of raw food with a small fraction of the work time it cost them. And there is no economic or physical force, and no concept in standard economic theory, that suggests that this progressive reduction in the cost of lunch cannot continue indefinitely. We eat our cheap lunch courtesy of the sweat of our ancestors’ brows in mental as well as physical labor.

—Julian L. Simon

Population Matters

The Threat to Christian Schools

The Christian schools have wisely backed away from federal funds and, as long as they do so, they will be able to maintain their freedom and control. But, more and more, we are hearing Christian school administrators and pastors talk of the burden of Christian education. More than one Christian school has dabbled with the idea of reaching for the carrot of subsidies. Some have even stated that when the controls come, they will scramble to high ground. How foolish to think you can play with fire and not be burned.

Now, the government has offered a second carrot, but this time it has been extended, not to the school, but to the parents. Direct aid to the parent through tuition tax credits, the voucher system, child care, transportation reimbursements just to name a few. This is but a back door approach. If they cannot bring the school to accept the funds, they will seek to encourage the parents. They are banking on their need and ignorance. Once the parents have become accustomed to receiving the funds, you will find that these funds will be withheld if the school of their choice does not meet par-titular criteria. If they cannot control the school directly, they will attempt to control the flow of students, thus forcing those schools who will not conform out of business.

—James R. Patrick,

writing in Foundations of Liberty

Taxing Investments

The main cause of a near horizon in investment planning today is not investors or manages—it is government, especially the income tax system. The tax system penalizes saving relative to consumption. That encourages potential investors not to save, or, if they do save, to do so for less time than they otherwise would. With depreciable assets, the tax system’s cost recovery allowances systematically favor short-lived assets over long-lived ones because the allowances have a smaller present value as asset life rises. Revenue-raising changes in the tax code, which have occurred almost yearly in the last decade, also shorten investment horizons. When these changes are frequent, long-lived investments become riskier and thus less desirable than short-lived ones. Because short-lived investments mature quickly, investors in them soon have an opportunity to reshape their plans in light of the new tax rules.

—Michael Schuyler

Institute for Research on

the Economics of Taxation

Reader’s Digest

“Another World,” by Richard L. Lesher, which appeared in the September 1990 Freeman, has been reprinted in the January 1991 issue of Reader’s Digest, as part of the feature titled “That’s Outrageous,” pages 163-165.

A False Prosperity

War prosperity is like the prosperity that an earthquake or a plague brings. The earthquake means good business for construction workers, and cholera improves the business of physicians, pharmacists, and undertakers; but no one has for that reason yet sought to celebrate earthquakes and cholera as stimulators of the productive forces in the general interest.

—Ludwig von Mises

Nation, State, and Economy