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What’s Fair About Equal Outcomes?

If you’ve been using the MPI website for any length of time you’ve probably come across the phrase “Equal people are not free and free people are not equal.” The point of that saying is that no society can guarantee equal outcomes for its members, and trying comes at the cost of freedom.

The reason is that people bring different attributes, talents, aspirations and even luck to the table. Equalizing those things means artificially holding some of them back and propping some of them up; in other words, taking away their freedom to succeed or fail or even to dream.

Enforced equality of outcomes would mean forcing beautiful people to wear masks, holding down stronger people with weights, depriving athletes or actors of the ability to use their talents and more. I think we can all agree that wouldn’t be fair, so why is it fair to deprive risk-takers, hard workers, and innovators of what they produce to make them equal with those who have worked less, taken fewer risks, or just aren’t blessed with the same skills and talents? Clearly it isn’t.

Attempts to equalize outcomes are the inevitable results of envy or of seeing the world as zero-sum. The envy argument speaks for itself. If you believe your failures are the fault of others, it’s not much of a leap to wish  punishment on them. That’s hardly a fair or moral argument.

But those who believe in a zero-sum world think that winners must equal losers, and so the losers must be made whole. That’s not the way our world works. Nobody is worse off because Bill Gates is a billionaire. In fact, millions of people’s lives are much better because he had the incentive to bring PCs to the masses; and those who followed him and got rich building apps and hardware and businesses made even more people better off. They didn’t take slices of the pie away from others, they created their own slices and grew the pie for everyone else in the process. We should encourage that, not punish it.

There’s a myth out there that so-called progressives are more compassionate than free marketers and care more for those who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. It’s a myth because free markets are what raise everybody’s standard of living. Rather than trying to equalize outcomes by bringing down the rich, those who believe in the power of free enterprise want to raise up the poor. That includes the freedom to succeed, but also taking responsibility for failure. A reasonably regulated free market with a safety net befitting a civil, prosperous society has proven again and again to bring about the best outcomes for the most people. That’s the moral high ground.

Freedom and free markets bring prosperity, which makes civil society and safety nets possible. Poor people and poor countries don’t take care of those who can’t afford to take care of themselves. They don’t take care of the environment. And they don’t respect the rights of their citizens. They can’t. They’re trying to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Civility and charity require prosperity, and the most prosperous nations in the world embrace free enterprise. That’s why free markets are not just effective, they’re moral and fair.

If you want to read up on these and other arguments favoring freedom and free enterprise with both moral and economic arguments, here are a few places to go, all of them free and at websites you should explore at any rate:

  • For the basics from the greats, Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law” is still the classic. You can read it in an evening.
  • To learn why central planning doesn’t work and politics turns basic economics on its head read Friedrich Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom. It’s a slog, though, so a nice weekend book that covers it all would be Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson.
  • Again a bit of a slog, but John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is one of the best treatments around of the tradeoffs required in a republican or democratic (notice the small ‘r’ and ‘d’ there) society to maintain freedom while exercising the responsibilities of citizenship. I don’t agree with everything he came up with, but he makes his points well and takes a realistic look at at an idealistic concept.

And finally, Arthur Brookes The Battle and Stephen Moore’s Who’s the Fairest of Them All are concise contemporary reads with both arguments and lots of data to support their basic points that freedom to succeed is both fair and moral. They’re not free, but I’ll loan you a copy if you want.

Happy reading!

Is The Election An End Or A Beginning?

Winston Churchill, when asked if the Allied victory in North Africa was the beginning of the end of World War II, replied “No, but it may be the end of the beginning.” Despite yesterday’s disappointing results, American Exceptionalism is not at an end. I’m not even quite ready to say it’s at the beginning of the end.

But this election marks a significant shift in our culture; and that shift is the end of the beginning of this great American experiment. We have gone from a majority that respects freedom and responsibility to a majority that envies success and covets power.

If you’re like me by about 8:00 last night you felt like you’d been kicked in the gut. How could so many of our fellow countrymen and Montanans – Montanans for crying out loud! – be ready to toss out the principles that made this country great and become mere cogs in a vast machine run by government overseers and their cronies?

And why should any of us continue to fight for those principles when most Americans today clearly don’t understand or value them?

I’ll leave it to pundits and shrinks to answer the first question. I have my own ideas on why people so willingly trade freedom for security, confuse likeability with competency, and don’t take the time or mental effort to understand the complex issues we face today. But regardless of the reasons, that’s where we are.

The question is, what do those of us who care about freedom, who understand what makes this country different and great do about it? Do we take our toys and go home: disengage, get off the grid and let the country and culture drive itself off the cliff?

Many of us who have worked hard, saved, and planned ahead in case of uncertain times have the option to step aside, live simpler lives, and watch the train go over the edge.

And I’ll be honest. My first reaction last night was “To hell with them all. If they can’t figure it out why should I care anymore.”

But that’s not who I am; and if you’ve read this far I doubt it’s who you are, either.

I had two maxims during my Naval career that got me through many difficult times: from months of being yelled at by a Marine drill sergeant, to endless months boring circles in and over oceans around the world, to twenty four hour operations in hot zones. They’re simple – almost Sophomoric – but they’re true: “Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems,” and “This too shall pass.”

Remember how you felt in 2008. It was bad and we’re worse off now. But we’re still here. The feelings of disappointment, gloom, and even betrayal soften. Thoughts turn to the future.

We’ll survive despite some hard times ahead. But we don’t want to go through this again.

Do your grieving and get on with the task at hand.

It’s the end of the beginning. We’ve entered a new phase in the battle for America and I for one am not ready to surrender.

With great risk comes great opportunity, but not certain success. That’s why they call it risk. We need to recognize that the culture has shifted and meet that shift head on. We need to get past short term political opportunism and invest in demonstrating the inevitable human tragedies that will result from the coming policies out of Washington and the possibility of continued failed policies coming out of Helena (the votes aren’t all in as I write this).

People are voting with their hearts, not their heads. We need to reach their hearts so that we can engage their heads.

We will do our part at MPI to ensure that you and state leaders have ideas and options to return to the principles that made this country the Shining City on the Hill and Montana its crown jewel.  But as we’ve seen, great ideas are not enough.

The culture is the key. Montanans must understand the grave issues facing our state and nation, and how the current path toward centralized control, dependency on the state and decline of the private sector affect them personally. That takes constant engagement and reaching people where they are, not where we want them to be.

And it means playing offense, not defense! For too long we’ve assumed people would do the right thing if they just had the facts. Facts are necessary but insufficient. We need to actively work to create a culture of freedom and build a bench of future leaders whose guiding principles go beyond getting into office. We need to build a Freedom Majority that feels with their hearts and votes with their heads.

The Montana Policy Institute will be on the front lines, informing and persuading taxpayers and leaders to put freedom ahead of free stuff, to win the battle of ideas that leads to victories in the battle for leadership. We need you to continue to stand with us, and to encourage others to help make that effort decisive by supporting the Montana Policy Institute.

You can start right now by forwarding this email to five friends letting them know you care about our freedoms, and asking them to join the battle for ideas that is so crucial to Montana’s future.

Let’s step up to ensure that Tuesday, November 6th 2012 becomes a tipping point for the restoration of freedom in America and a legacy of opportunity in Montana; that the end of the beginning in American Exceptionalism is the beginning of the end for statism and tyranny!