All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1986

The Right To Stagnate

Frank W. Bubb is an attorney residing in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

When force is used to maintain the status quo, basic rights are violated.

Every society operates explicitly or implicitly on some theory of rights, that is, a generally shared view of who can do what to whom under what circumstances.

Most of us still pay lip service to the traditional American theory that each person has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and to the free-market economics implied by that the-ory-with some important qualifications. Now, however, the qualifications have become so pervasive in practice that we have backed into an entirely different theory of rights.

The new theory could be described as follows: “The members of each major group in our society have the right to be maintained at the standard of living they have come to expect. If economic change threatens this standard, it is the duty of government to help the affected group.”

For example:

      • Thousands of American farmers have been facing financial ruin as their debt escalates while commodity prices remain low. Predictably, they appealed to the government for emergency low-interest loans. What is their justification? That they, the businessmen who borrowed to bid up prices of farmland in the boom years of the late 1970s, have the right to be made whole at the expense of the taxpayers, so they can live as if the boom had continued.

      • American steelmakers have repeatedly brought proceedings before the U.S. International Trade Commission to prevent Americans from buying more than a certain percentage of their steel from abroad. How is the import percentage arrived at? To give U.S. steelmakers enough sales to remain profitable, so they can continue to operate as if they were the first choice of customers who would now rather buy elsewhere.

      • In the annual battle over budget cuts, many politicians refuse to eliminate programs, instead favoring an across the board freeze so the pain is “shared equally.” Why? Because every interest group that once mustered enough political power to obtain a subsidy is deemed entitled to that Subsidy forevermore, regardless of its current merit.

      • And what about those cost of living allowances on Social Security and government pensions? The purpose of a cost of living allowance is to make recipients whole after inflation. But inflation is a hidden tax, a way for the government to take additional resources out of the private economy. If some are al lowed to live under the illusion that inflation is not a burden, then the burden on others is increased.

      • My favorite example of our new theory of rights is tobacco farmers. Here is a group of people whose particular product is, in effect, a poison. Yet at the same time the federal government spends billions to counter tobacco’s harm, it continues to subsidize tobacco farmers, apparently on the theory that it is “not their fault” that their product has been found dangerous.

We have traded “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for “the right to stagnate.”

In these cases and countless others, politically cohesive groups use the power of government—the power to tax, the power to stop imports at the border, and so on—to shift the burden of coping with economic change to the unorganized mass of taxpayers and consumers.

The right to stagnate is nice, for those who have it. Unfortunately, it is not available to everyone. Since “change is the only constant,” people must constantly adapt to it, whether they live alone or in groups.

A person who proclaimed his right to stagnate while living alone on a desert island would find his error quickly corrected by reality. In society, some people can live under the illusion that change can be stopped as long as they can find victims to bear its less desirable consequences.

The right to stagnate must be rationed, and the ration card is political power. Those groups which can organize most easily and whose members have the most to gain from government favors can always outmaneuver larger, less organized groups whose members have relatively little to gain or lose on any particular issue.

In The Rise and Decline of Nations, economist Mancur Olson details the correlation between economic stagnation and the power of special interest groups. Those societies which enjoyed long periods of stability—India and China through the ages, and in the last half-century Great Britain—have been choked by the accretion of interest group power. But those societies whose interest groups have been destroyed by war or revolution, such as Japan, Korea, and West Germany, or whose interest groups have been unable to keep pace with a rapid expansion of political borders, such as 19th-century America or the European Common Market in the 1950s, have had extraordinary economic growth.

Olson’s analysis is basically pessimistic. Do we need war or revolution to unfasten the hold of special interest groups on the throat of our body politic?

Maybe, just maybe, a moral revolution might be enough. If enough people could recognize the right to stagnate for what it is, and start treating its proponents with the scorn they reserve for common thieves, we might yet realize the American Dream.