All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1987

Scenario for a New Serfdom

andrew Barniskis is an aerospace engineer and consultant in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. where he has been active with several civic organizations.

Those who appreciate the power of ideas have noted that the most sweeping changes in human history have come as a result of people changing their minds. Major historical events such as wars won, territories conquered, or natural cataclysms usually have failed to make appreciable changes in the course of history unless they resulted in a change in people’s attitudes.

For example, Spain’s discovery and conquest of the New World led to a tremendous increase in her material wealth in gold and silver. Yet, what should have been a windfall enabling fantastic advancement of the nation’s culture, failed to yield any long-term economic or social benefits, precisely because it yielded no significant change in what was an essentially feudal social philosophy.

On the other hand, a disaster of monumental proportions had a positive effect because it forced a change in people’s ideas. The Black Death, the great plague which wiped out as much as one- fourth of the population of Europe in the fourteenth century, contributed to the Renaissance by making it impractical to continue many labor-intensive practices of industry and agriculture. Machines and the power of wind and water replaced muscle power, and the saving in human drudgery fostered an expansion in industry and trade. Over a period of time the resulting economic expansion allowed more people to dedicate themselves to intellectual pursuits, and eventually the increase in learning led to the end of the feudal society across most of Europe. This would lead to the birth of the freedom philosophy manifested in England and its American colonies.

It is important to remember, however, that over a period of time, it is possible for people to undergo a change in lifestyle without recognizing the driving forces behind it. It is doubtful if the New England farmer, taking his grain to a water-powered mill in Colonial America, reflected on how that simple invention had contributed to his life as a free-trader, as compared to the life of virtual slavery known to his ancestors.

Today, many people are expressing alarm over the rapid changes taking place in the American family. Whereas the two-income family with both parents working was rare a generation ago, now over 60 per cent of families fall into that category. The resulting strain, which accompanies any rapid social change, is contributing to increased rates of divorce and other family problems, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence. While most people agree that a basic change is taking place in our society, there is broad disagreement as to its cause, and there seems to be a common belief that, whatever the cause, it results from a more-or-less spontaneous change in people’s attitudes.

Traditionalists, yearning for a return to an ideal time of white picket fences and Mom hanging the wash out on the line, blame an excess of materialism and a desire to “keep up with the Joneses.” They tend to concentrate on preaching family values while accusing the current generation of young adults of a moral breakdown. They see the two-worker family as an example of people making consciously selfish choices, and some go so far as to propose legislation to penalize two-income families, forcing Morn back into the kitchen and nursery where, they believe, she is best able to solve the nation’s problems.

Others avoid discussing a reason for the change in the American family, and concentrate instead on treating the symptoms of change. Recent years have seen a growing concern and new legislation over drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, and other social problems, as if society could be engineered by legislating away antisocial behavior. Many are dismayed that the United States is years behind European socialist governments in developing programs to mask the rough spots of social change.

Some, particularly feminists, see the changes in the American family as beneficial and progressive. They see the two-income family as relieving women from de facto slavery in the home, formerly enforced by their husbands and the ironclad traditions of society. They, too, tend to see the changes as resulting from a more-or-less spontaneous mind-change, or an awakening of women’s consciousness in the past two decades. They seldom question what is cause and what is effect when they look at the increased presence of women in the work-force, and their increased demands for expanded economic and career options.

Despite what traditionalists or progressives may think, polls indicate that if people are making selfish choices, they certainly are not enjoying the results. A recent NBC News poll, cited in The Wall Street Journal (March 11, 1987), asked whether people thought middle-class families had an easier or harder time maintaining their lifestyle than they did five years ago. A disturbing 65 per cent, presumably expressing their perception of their own condition, answered that life is harder today. Assuming that most people are intelligent enough to reverse selfish decisions when they recognize that those decisions are not bringing them the happiness they expected, we can only conclude that Americans are changing their lifestyles not from selfishness, but because they have no choice.

Several weeks ago, I had an opportunity to eavesdrop on a friendly argument between two professional economists over what percentage of the Gross National Product (GNP) is repre sented by government spending. One maintained that government spending is now 52 per cent of GNP, while the other maintained that it is only 36 per cent. While the precision of the figure may be significant to economists, to the layman it’s the approximate order of magnitude that should be striking: Something between one-third and one-half of America’s productive capacity is being consumed by government! Compare that to 1930, when about five per cent of GNP went to government.

Why Things Have Changed

While it may be an oversimplification of a complex phenomenon, simple inspection of these statistics provides an immediate explanation for the basic change in the American family: One person must work to support the family, so the other can work to support the government! The typical ratio of the lesser to the greater income in a two-income family compares quite well with the fraction of GNP consumed by government, and it is already widely known that on average, over 40 per cent of our gross incomes are spent on taxes of one form or another.

Some might think that over a period of years, as more and more people recognize the source of their plight, this situation will tend to correct itself through the processes of representative government. My experience suggests that the opposite may be true.

Recently, as representatives of a county taxpayers association, another officer and I attended a public meeting where the topic was a proposed new earned-income tax. In the municipality in question, the proposed tax would represent a tax increase for the average family of between several hundred to more than a thousand dollars a year—something that should have galvanized the interest of even the most apathetic citizens. Yet attendance consisted of the two of us from the county association, two representatives of a local civic association, two newspaper reporters—and only one private citizen.

In another case, a friend was explaining the importance of a local issue to his son and daughter-in-law, when his son blurted out, “Dad, we don’t want to hear it! We’ve got enough problems of our own every day without worrying about that nonsense!” After a moment of hurt feelings, my friend had to admit that his son was right—that with what the family was facing, trying to maintain even a modest middle-class lifestyle, they didn’t have time to think about much else. And, after long weeks of labor interspersed with weekends of household drudgery and necessary errands, they could not really be blamed for wanting to spend such free time as they could find on escapist entertainment, with the TV and VCR or at the sports field.

It would seem that the developing social and economic situation in our country may be reaching a point where a plunge into a modern-day serfdom and a new Dark Age will become irreversible. As people are becoming more and more crushed by the demands of government, they are becoming less inclined to engage in the intellectual pursuits that would lead them to understand the cause of their plight. A decade ago, concern over the economy was bringing many people around to at least paying lip service to the need for fiscal conservatism and rational economics, and to actively studying the mechanisms of the changes occurring around them. Today, the current generation of politicians is voicing the de rigueur condemnations of trillion- dollar budgets, but in the same breath they are proposing new multi-billion dollar spending programs—and their constituents seem to be ignoring the contradiction.

Even college students, perhaps sensing that their future may be more a matter of economic survival than prosperity, are turning away from the world of ideas and pursuing studies which they hope will put them on the fast track to achieving wealth as soon after college as possible. Instead of a new generation of people educated in the beauty of logic and reason, the next decade may see the emergence of a wave of highly trained technicians, schooled in applying technologies of the moment, but poorly equipped to advance those technologies or develop new ones. This is already apparent in some industries where, despite a great deal of rhetoric about “high technology,” research and development consists largely of wrapping existing technologies in new packages.

The above paints a very pessimistic scenario of a civilization moving slowly backward as its people lose the intellectual tools needed to hold on to their freedom. However, it also shows clearly the direction that those of us who are committed to the freedom philosophy must take.

First, we must each continue our efforts at self-improvement, even though we may find ourselves with less discretionary time each day. In particular, we must not allow ourselves to fall back, as a matter of convenience, on merely reading the periodicals published by our favorite free-market or libertarian organizations. Self- improvement entails thinking through a wide range of ideas and concepts, and even the most profound wisdom becomes meaningless if it is merely accepted as philosophical dogma.

Next, remembering that our neighbors have little time to spend on pondering nebulous con cepts, we should make an effort to communicate the ideas which each of us has found to be the most convincing and memorable. For example, the economic arguments presented with elegant simplicity in the parables of Frederic Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt are easily recast into modern-day scenarios, and often can form the basis for a letter or short article that will be welcomed by a local newspaper, a trade magazine, or even a sport or recreation publication. We shouldn’t fear stating ideas simply, if it will mean busy people will have the time to read and think about them.

Above all, we must endeavor to expose deliberate repetitions of economic fallacies for what they are—lies. Many of my generation became interested in the study of free-market economics because of the absurd excuses that were being given for the economic problems of the early 1970s—for example, blaming shop-lifters for price inflation. In the future, it will become even more necessary for economic in-terventionists to resort to ridiculous claims to justify their attempts to gain control over the economy, and catching them in their deceit can be an important first step in the education of a new generation.

In the midst of a very bleak scenario for the future, we have a point of hope for which we can be thankful. That hope is technology. Just as technology in the form of the printing press enabled an enormous increase in the dissemination of ideas hundreds of years ago, inexpensive typewriters, word processors, and copy machines have increased by orders of magnitude the power each of us has to spread ideas today. It is imperative that we use that power.