All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1955

The Curse Of Something For Nothing

Mr. Maus is a Training Director in industry.

A bank president has implicit faith in the integrity of his cashier. The cashier suddenly absconds with fifty thousand dollars of the bank’s funds.

A man hurries through a New Year’s throng in Times Square. He reaches for his purse. It is gone; picked by someone in the crowd.

The vacationing members of a family return to their home in the city. It has been ransacked. Valuable possessions are missing.

Two armored-car guards are shot down in a bank entrance without warning. Two other men with smoking guns grab the fallen pouches of currency and disappear.

If you are a regular reader of newspapers, the events briefly described above should have a familiar ring. Perhaps, at one time or another, you may have wondered how it happens that an able-bodied adult gets himself to the point where he will commit such crimes. There are at least two truths about such actions that are obvious, although they are frequently overlooked. The first of these truths is the simple fact that a person who commits a crime similar to those mentioned must do some thinking and planning to get the deed done.

“How then,” one might ask, “does the thinking of such people get so grooved as to lead them ultimately down the road of crime?”

The answer to that question deals with the second obvious truth about the criminal behaviour previously described. It is this: In each of the four crimes mentioned, the villain in the act took something that did not belong to him; something he had not earned; something for which he was offering nothing in return; something for nothing.

There is in almost all of us, old enough to think, that ageless dream of acquiring something for nothing, in large or small amounts. Some of us buy lottery tickets at almost every opportunity. Some of us play the numbers racket. Some of us secretly look forward to the death of a rich relative, expecting him to remember us generously in his will. Some of us sue others for substantial damages when, in fact, little or no damages were really suffered. Some of us eagerly seek tips on the stock market or the horse races. Some of us succumb to the fascination of the slot machine or the roulette wheel. And many of us recall, with feelings akin to nostalgia, the enchantment of our childhood belief in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And so it goes, an almost endless refrain: Something for nothing. Something for nothing. Something for nothing.

Constantly thinking about getting something for nothing can lead to constant scheming about how to get something that way. As a result, all desire truly to earn one’s way in life may become lost. And, if that happens, getting without giving can become the accepted method of seeking a livelihood. Therein lies the answer to the question as to how the thinking of some people can get so grooved as to lead them ultimately “down the road of crime.

However, only a relatively few people permit the appeal of something for nothing to lure them into acts of crime. Others, stopping short of crime, permit themselves to be lured into the squeamish life of a panhandler. Still others develop a facility for cheating within the law. And still others succumb only to the extent of acquiring a general disposition to be irresponsible or lazy, the reason for which they never seem quite able to understand. They know only that they are more or less constantly hoping that, somehow, somewhere, their ships will come in without much effort on their part.

The large majority of people, however, seem to suffer little or no personality damage from indulging in the quite human pastime of hoping to get something for nothing. But, there is another aspect of this something-for-nothing stuff that is far more serious than a simple case of armed robbery.

History is strewn with the wreckage of men and of nations lured to their destruction by the bait of something for nothing—lured by smoothly planned appeals to the criminal tendencies that lie dormant and unrecognized in almost everybody. And the lure succeeded only because its true nature was invariably hidden under a barrage of righteous propaganda.

It may well be that history is subtly being compelled to repeat itself; perhaps on a much larger and rascally scale than ever before. Already, enough of the people may have swallowed the bait to cause some impartial historian in the distant future to write a book entitled: “The Collapse of the Twentieth Century Civilization—An Era of Something for Nothing.” He may describe in some detail the manner in which unscrupulous and clever public leaders fooled hosts of sincere folks back into misery and slavery with that old fable about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—Caesar’s rainbow.

Perhaps the future historians will say something like this:

Even in the United States of America, which was the last remaining hope of the world in 1960, colossal give-away schemes, carefully disguised by a scholarly brand of double-talk, had already corrupted millions of mature and able-bodied people into the belief that their personal welfare was the responsibility of someone else—that they should rightly be supported by the product of other people’s efforts and not their own!

Those right-thinking leaders in the nation who sought to reveal the gi-gantic hoax were reviled and ridiculed. They were too late. The clever and unscrupulous ones had too successfully endowed with the halo of righteousness their unholy gospel of something for nothing. And their clever success was in no small measure abetted by those popular and breezy intellectuals who assured all who would listen that the people, simply because they could enter a voting booth, were justly entitled to whatever they chose to vote to themselves.

And so, confused by intellectual half-truths and by subtle but outright falsehoods, the people were persuaded to forget that personal usefulness is the only highway men may travel in a successful pursuit of liberty and happiness. In substitution for the truth they were trapped into forgetting, the people were systematically persuaded to believe that, if they would but worship at the feet of “all-wise” government, a constant flood of something-for-nothing would bring a harvest of “security” to all. Of all the crimes committed in that dazzling but foolish era, this was the greatest. []

The grants of “rocking chair money” . . . not only tend to increase inflation but are a thoroughly corrupting “something for nothing” influence. They are like a drug which, once started, can never be abandoned but must continue to be taken in ever-increasing doses. Such grants would be given on pretty much the same principle as that recommended by Damonides at the time of Pericles. In order to increase his popularity Pericles decided that he would make large gifts to the people. Then the sixty-four dollar question arose as to where the money was to come from—how the plan was to be financed. And Damonides, the cynical old philosopher, came up with the jackpot answer. He said, “Make them presents from their own property.”

The Cotton Trade Journal, New Orleans, February 10, 1950

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here.