Plunder by Proxy

Mr. Read is President of the Foundation for Economic Education.

"They who employ force by proxy, are as much responsible for that force as though they employed it themselves."
Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, 1865

The popularity of Robin Hood derives from the fact that he robbed the rich to aid the poor. Let it be acknowledged that he was popular not with the few he robbed but with the poor he aided, they being the more numerous.

Robin would not have been popular even with the poor had he robbed the rich to aid himself. Nor would the poor have been popular had they robbed the rich to aid themselves.

However, the rich were no less robbed by reason of Robin’s doing the robbing. Nor were the recipients of stolen goods any the less thieves because someone else did their stealing.

The issue in this fiction is not robbery, for that has been established. The issue is: Why, when someone else does one’s stealing, is there an absence of a guilty conscience, a sense of absolution? Can anything be done about it?

The analogue to this Robin Hood fiction is the taking-from-some-giving-to-others reality of our own political establishments. The recipients of subsidies, for instance, have no more sense of guilt than did Robin’s “beneficiaries.” Absolution is assumed, and for the same reason: Someone else—in this case, the government—does the plundering and the bestowing.

As long as this blind spot prevails, it will induce a feeling of absolution; and as long as this false feeling persists, political plunder will be increasingly embraced as proper national policy.

What can be done to replace this blind spot with understanding?

A bit of imagination may suffice. Take the recipient of a farm subsidy as an example. Let the government policy of subsidization remain exactly as it is. It is decreed that Farmer Jones (he may be rich or he may be poor) is to receive $1,000 as payment for taking some of his acreage out of production. But instead of the government forcibly collecting this amount in taxes, Farmer Jones is assigned a policeman and authorized by the government to call personally on all American families, rich and poor alike, and forcibly collect from each a specified amount. Disregard, please, the inefficiency of this type of plunder. Think only of Jones personally doing the collecting, with his policeman in tow, of course.

One can readily see what would happen the moment such personal plunder replaces impersonal government plunder. The blind spot would cease to exist. Guilt would stand where absolution had stood. Farmer Jones would no more use force to collect one penny from Widow Doakes or 50 cents from Mr. Gotrocks than he would steal his neighbor’s cow.

It isn’t necessary to adopt this collection plan to be rid of spoliation. It is only necessary to understand that morally there is not an iota of distinction between the collecting and disbursing method now in practice and the one here depicted.

The difference between the impersonal and personal methods is not moral but psychological, an unwholesome gap in thinking. The impersonal evokes a false absolution; the personal, if merely imagined, compels us to see that we would act solely on our own integrity and moral scruples. []

The Field of Personal Responsibility

It must be remembered that 95 per cent of the peace, order, and welfare existing in human society is always produced by the conscientious practice of man-to-man justice and person-to-person charity. When any part of this important domain of personal virtue is transferred to government, that part is automatically released from the restraints of morality and put into the area of conscienceless coercion. The field of personal responsibility is thus reduced at the same time and to the same extent that the boundaries of irresponsibility are enlarged.

Government cannot manage these fields of human welfare with the justice, economy, and effectiveness that are possible when these same fields are the direct responsibility of morally sensitive human beings. This loss of justice, economy, and effectiveness is increased in the proportion that such governmental management is centralized.

Clarence Manion, The Key to Peace