All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1991

Vive la Diffrence

Mr. Foley, a partner in Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt, practices law in Portland, Oregon.

Comparisons—purported or real—are dangerous. Superficial arguments can seem so plausible. Since human beings dislike strain and contention, we tend to accept the shallow or one-dimensional assertion without question.

A common example, which appears in many manifestations, is the unflattering comparison of public expenditures by the United States and other nations for various social welfare programs. How often have we heard that “the United States ranks very low among civilized nations in per capita expenditures for education,” or “virtually all Western countries provide greater public support for the (arts, humanities, old people, young people, sad people, bad people) than we do”? Proponents of “social” causes decry this purported governmental and cultural absence of support for their favorite venture as a sign of a failing civilization, as if endless state funds should be committed without question or cavil to child care, elder care, alcohol rehabilitation, sex education, and myriad other proposals and programs limited solely by the fantasies of the activist mind.

The zealot commonly overlooks flaws that threaten his preconceived notions. Serious flaws in addition to those of calculation and conception erode this ineluctable parade of plans for spending “public monies.” These deficiencies arise in no small part from the inaccuracy of the underlying assumption that the United States is an abject failure because it theoretically throws less tax money at any or all such social programs. Let us examine two of the more malignant defects: the inaccurate calculus, and the essential denial of conceptual history and principle.

One may dispatch the erroneous calculation quickly and certainly. A plethora of distinguishing computational features and factors differentiate the United States from other nations with which it is unfavorably compared. For example, no one can verify the comparative figures from other countries: How can one equate open and closed societies? And, even in the United States, dishonest political accounting obscures and misleads the student of political economy seeking to discern just how much is spent on a particular function. Further, each nation differs in monetary unit, data base, system content, linguistic labels, political structure, and a whole host of other variables which result in a comparison of incomparables. Thus to say, for example, that Russia, France, or Chile spends more on education than the United States says nothing important at all. The argument satisfies only the utterer because it is meaningless without close examination and verification of many features to assure that the statement compares comparables.

However, the error of the conceptual premise overwhelms this obvious inaccuracy of the calculation. Assume, for the sake of argument, that some or several nations we generally respect spend more tax money on some or all common “social programs.” Assume further that men of good will would generally acknowledge that the end sought is laudable: after all, who among us would dispute that education of the young, medical care for mothers, and rest for the aged constitute fine objects in the abstract? Even the positing of these suppositions will not sustain the argument that the United States is remiss in some duty to its citizenry, and that such an omission may be cured solely by a massive assessment, collection, and application of more taxes to these praised projects. A faulty premise always implicates and erodes a conclusion; in this case, the proponents of more governmental activity have overlooked, misread, or ignored the foundations of our country.

The 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights ought to remind us of our beginnings. Our forefathers left their “Old World” and hewed a new nation out of the forbidding wilderness of this “New World.” The adjectives “old” and “new” referred not primarily to location. Rather, they connoted and commended a sharp break with the omnipresent past; a past of hunger, disease, incivility, and slavery; a past which those wise and honorable men and women wished to leave behind—in the Old World.

In the Old World, individuals counted for little or nothing; they existed as the king’s pawns or nature’s playthings. As Thomas Hobbes decried, human life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Men toiled for a lifetime in the dank and the dark, without hope or help. The feudal monarchs and barons plundered as they wished; it scarcely mattered to the serf or yeoman if his meager possessions were taken by force of arms or by force of law.

Presaging the Instrumentalist revolution in law and education of the late 19th century, the privileged and powerful of the Old World could say with virtual impunity, “The law is what I say it is, and nothing more pretentious.” Thus, in the Old World, the state reigned supreme and the individual merely sojourned to serve its greater purposes; the state determined what should be created, how it should be produced, and who should receive the resultant distribution; the state decreed who could engage in each and every task and for what return or recompense; the state declared the existence and content of any and all “social programs”; the state decided who might live and who should die.

New World, New Vision

By contrast, the New World offered a new and singular vision. The original beauty of our nation lay in its creed of expansive freedom of individual action and strict limitation of state control. Men were at liberty to live their lives, take their risks, and reap their rewards as they saw fit without government direction or interference. So long as men didn’t plunder or cheat their neighbors, the state kept its nose out of their lives and businesses. Our ancestors specifically sought to escape the squalid model of the Old World with its caste system, festering poverty, and pervasive malaise. They achieved this goal by a new vision of individual rights fit for the New World and protected by a special structure of limitations upon the state by means of a Constitution that spelled out personal rights safeguarded from collective trammel.

For years, the United States retained and followed this novel vision. In so doing, within a single lifetime, our citizens—all immigrants from the faltering and oppressive Old World—came to enjoy the highest standard of living (including, not incidentally, health care, educational progress, artistic stimulation, and a whole host of other values which form the essence of civilization) that the world, old or new, had ever known. What perceptive philosophers had long surmised became proven in fact: unfettered free men and women will produce the best, most civil, most advanced, most honorable society possible.

Men without chains eliminated drudgery, advanced science, improved life, and engendered happiness for all segments of society. Amazingly, the “poor” benefited relatively more substantially than the wealthy in the United States, a stark contrast to the Old World of privilege and patronage. And, all the while, those truly important “social action” projects were fulfilled in a manner much superior to that prevailing in myopic Old World fiefdoms.

Free men recognize what is essential and proceed to accomplish such necessary tasks, unbound by archaic regulations and stifling bureaucratic murk. Slaves see no farther than the end of the master’s nose. After all, it doesn’t pay for a servant or a serf to venture into the unusual or unknown.

This century, however, has borne witness to a remarkable turnabout in attitude, integrity, productivity, and civility. This retrenchment seeks to take root in an inordinate idealization of a foreign model, the Old World way of doing things. Gradually we are encouraged to ape Old World social and legal systems, venerating them for their supposed wisdom and humanity, and adopting them for our own. In so doing, we not only depart from the core of our greatness but also take on the trappings of a failing and faded civilization, a social system erected on force, malevolence, mediocrity, and mandate. Our forebears left those Old World evils for good reason; we would do well to emulate • our ancestors, not the heritage they discarded.

  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.