January 9th, 2000.
"Who's To Get What"
Who is it that should take the benefit of the goods and services we see about us? The instinctive answer, and, in the final analysis, the correct answer, is, -- those who brought the goods and services into being. The notion of property rights is central to our social and legal institutions. Persons have a natural right to enjoy the fruits of their own labour, either directly or through trade. The undeniable truth is that without acknowledging and protecting the right a person has in the product of his or her own efforts, then the production of goods and delivery of services will not flow. This incentive is what drives, singularly drives, the economic system. Let us assume, however, for the moment, that goods and services would, some how, miraculously come into being without individual incentive. Then the next question lies to be answered, Who, Is To Get What? If not done by the sordid distinction of money, how else? Draw lots? Fight? Well, "No!" The social engineers will answer. We will just sit down and figure it all out.
The question -- Who Is To Get What? -- really, only comes up in the hypothetical situation posed, viz., that no incentive is necessary for goods and services to come into being; and to believe this, is to have a wholly erroneous view of the nature of man. If there is nothing to distribute, then the second question as to who is to get what does not arise. Where, however, a government has a pot of money to distribute, property taken from the citizens though a coercive tax system, then, the question does arise. Should it not be, then, that we are left to work out the distribution in a rational and democratic manner. I do not think so. In following their natural impulses (meant to serve them in their familial relationships1) people will engage in: "Endless discussion, continual explanation, the constant statement and re-statement to Parliament on every matter on which government is to act [and] hamper to the last degree the process of governing. Nothing can be done at all till the importance of doing it has been made obvious to the very lowest capacity; and whatever can be made obvious to such capacities is sure in course of time to be done, although it may be obvious to people capable of taking a wider view that it ought not to be done. When once done, it is the hardest thing in the world to get it undone."2 The process eats up all that is available; and, those who it may be thought should get some help, get nothing at all; indeed, the process is harmful to the deserving and destructive to the body politic as a whole.
1 Man, while he may want to remedy suffering remote from him: he cannot. The best that can be done is to take care of one's own. There is a chance of success in that small quarter; but, as any family person will know, failure often comes even after our best efforts. How is it possible that we might help someone we do not know?
2 Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873); (University of Chicago Press, 1991) at p. 215.
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