Friday, 1 July 2011

The governmental Robin Hood

A comment from Ian B over at Tim Worstall's reflecting on the puritanical streak in the left led me to remark that the salient term was 'post-millennial pietism', something I'd picked up from Murray Rothbard. I then wondered if this would mean much to others, so googled the term to see what I would find. Unsurprisingly, top of the list was an essay by the great man entitled 'Origins of the Welfare State in America', of which this is the opening few paragraphs:

Standard theory views government as functional: a social need arises, and government, semi-automatically, springs up to fill that need. The analogy rests on the market economy: demand gives rise to supply (e.g., a demand for cream cheese will result in a supply of cream cheese on the market). But surely it is strained to say that, in the same way, a demand for postal services will spontaneously give rise to a government monopoly Post Office, outlawing its competition and giving us ever-poorer service for ever-higher prices.

Indeed, if the analogy fails when even a genuine service (e.g., mail delivery or road construction) is being provided, imagine how much worse the analogy is when government is not supplying a good or service at all, but is coercively redistributing income and wealth.

When the government, in short, takes money at gun point from A and gives it to B, who is demanding what? The cream cheese producer on the market is using his resources to supply a genuine demand for cream cheese; he is not engaged in coercive redistribution. But what about the government's taking from A and giving the money to B? Who are the demanders, and who are the suppliers? One can say that the subsidized, the "donees," are "demanding" this redistribution; surely, however, it would be straining credulity to claim that A, the fleeced, is also "demanding" this activity. A, in fact, is the reluctant supplier, the coerced donor; B is gaining at A's expense. But the really interesting role here is played by G, the government. For apart from the unlikely case where G is an unpaid altruist, performing this action as an uncompensated Robin Hood, G gets a rake-off, a handling charge, a finder's fee, so to speak, for this little transaction. G, the government, in other words, performs his act of "redistribution" by fleecing A for the benefit of B and of himself.

Once we focus on this aspect of the transaction, we begin to realize that G, the government, might not just be a passive recipient of B's felt need and economic demand, as standard theory would have it; instead, G himself might be an active demander and, as a full-time, paid Robin Hood, might even have stimulated B's demand in the first place, so as to be in on the deal. The felt need, then, might be on the part of the governmental Robin Hood himself.

from Murray N. Rothbard - 'Origins of the Welfare State in America'

1 comment:

James Higham said...

Oh yes - post-millennial pietism - TNL has just been on about the right so I think I might use this term in the reply. :)