Dr. North, economist, lecturer, author, currently is an associate of Chalcedon, an educational organization dedicated to Christian research and writing. His latest book is An Introduction to Christian Economics, Craig Press, 1973.
Free-for-all: what an image! It brings forth memories of childhood, with a mass of children running, yelling, leaping on top of each other — a chaotic mass of humanity, with “every kid for himself.” Or it appears in the average American’s mind as a barroom brawl, with slugging drunks, broken chairs and tables, bodies flying through the air. How many B-grade Westerns or 1944 military musicals have included in the second reel a fight between two guys in a bar, and as soon as three punches have been exchanged, fifty-four other men are slugging it out with each other in a mindless pandemonium?
Such nonsense may be all right for children or the fantasies of the late, late show, but how many of us would actually like to live our lives in a constant free-for-all? Not many, I suspect. Endless lawless chaos, endless pokes in the nose: it is not a pleasant prospect. Such a world would make it extremely difficult for men to plan, labor, produce, trade, or bring progress into the world. Leisure would disappear. In fact, the only way a free-for-all can exist, even for short periods of time, is for someone to subsidize it. It is no surprise that the free-for-all is associated with bawling children and brawling drunks. They are the only ones who can afford it. No society could long survive as a constant free-for-all.
Yet how many people today seem to regard the economy as a free-for-all? The ancient slogan of the socialists has been that nature is wholly abundant, but artificial human institutions and economic arrangements thwart the operation of nature’s bounty. Production is “normal” ; distribution is fouled. Therefore, all we need to do is tear down the artificial barriers to wealth. This was the vision of Marx and Engels, and it is alive and well in every society on earth, in spite of the fact that it is not always associated with Marx and Engels.1 Marx and Engels did not invent the slogan; it has been around for as long as men have tried to appropriate the fruits of each other’s labor.
Limitations of Nature
The premise is fallacious. Nature has limited capabilities for production. If we have learned nothing else from the ecology movement, we should have learned this. Nature’s productive power is a thin veneer; most of nature’s energy is expended in merely replacing what dies, day to day. It is man, with his wonderful gift of reason, which makes nature flourish. Man creates wealth, and this process is not free (gratuitous). It takes an expenditure of energy, capital, and time to make nature give up her fruits for the purposes of mankind. The problem is not distribution; the problem is always production. Production creates its own distribution; distribution does not create production. (The widespread distribution of nothing spreads pretty thin.)
It is because the premise of socialist redistribution is fallacious that a society of "free-for-all" economic goods would become one enormous free-for-all. Economic goods are scarce, that is, at zero price there is greater demand for them than supply of them. Prices are the sure indication of just how far we are from a free-for-all economy. Prices allow us to plan, evaluate our costs, make clear and responsible choices. They restrain our demands on nature and on each other. If there is anything in creation that is unlimited, it is our demands; everything else is restricted. So we live in a world of scarcity. But if we should try to abandon free pricing as our tool of allocation, what will replace it? State planning agencies? Votes? Guns? Fists? We would have ourselves a free-for-all in more ways than one. It would be every man for himself, like fifteen pups on an eight-nippled mother. We would be placing an economic premium on brawling instead of cooperation. Productivity, already limited, would fall even more. And nature, already overtaxed, would be exploited unmercifully — after all, if nature is totally abundant, men should force her to give up her wealth. (Which is why the Soviet Union has such a disastrous pollution problem: Marshall Goldman, The Spoils of Progress, M.I.T. Press, 1972.)
Divided We Fall
Those who insist on voting themselves a piece of another’s pie are thereby affirming their commitment to a free-for-all society. Minimum wage laws, price supports, graduated income taxation (sadly called “progressive” ), tariffs, government-guaranteed loans, regulated industries: the list goes on and on. With every piece of new legislation, the brawling increases, as more people jump into the fray.
We can legislate ourselves into a free-for-all world. I would prefer to pay my money and take my choice. At least in these circumstances, what I see is what I get. In a free-for-all, one seldom gets even this much. What you don’t see is what you get, such as a fist in the ear. Those who are productive tend to do poorly in slugfests, and those who are expert brawlers usually are not very efficient producers. A world of production can afford a few brawls, but a world of constant brawling starves.
Karl Marx completely rejected the only economic system on earth under which it is possible for the workers themselves to own, to control, and to manage directly the facilities of production. And shocking as the news may be to the disciples of Marx, that system is capitalism!
Here in America, ownership of our biggest and most important industries is sold daily, in little pieces, on the stock market. It is constantly changing hands; and if the workers of this country truly wish to own the tools of production, they can do so very simply.
They do not have to seize the government by force of arms. They do not even have to win an election. All in the world they have to do is to buy, in the open market, the capital stock of the corporation they want to own — just as millions of other Americans have been doing for many decades.
BENJAMIN F. FAIRLESS, The Great Mistake of Karl Marx