Sometimes we find a gem in an unexpected place. That was the case when a friend emailed me an assortment of quotations. Amid the somewhat interesting and not so interesting ones, I found the following:
You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend is the beginning of the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.
The author was Adrian Rogers, 1931-2005, though he reportedly borrowed parts of it from a different writer. A long-time pastor and onetime president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Rogers was a strong fiscal and social conservative and the author of a number of books.
What most impresses me about this quotation is that it succinctly and penetratingly reveals the deficiencies of Socialism. (A more detailed but equally readable treatment of the subject is offered in Henry Hazlitt’s classic book, “Economics in one Lesson.” See my discussion of this book.
What exactly is Socialism? One definition is a theory or system “of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.” (freedictionary.com) Another definition is “a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.” (merriam-webster.com) A third is “an economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity.” (dictionary.reference.com)
The common element in these definitions is government control over the production and distribution of goods. (“Goods,” of course, includes not just material products but also property and money.) And control may vary, so one economy can be more or less socialistic than another; it can also become more or less so over time.
Rogers’ target is a view of work, effort, and prosperity that diminishes all three. That view is Socialism (though the word does not appear in the quotation). The quotation comprises a devastating argument, each sentence revealing a distinct but related deficiency. Let’s look more closely at each.
“You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.” Prosperity may be partly due to good fortune, but it is more importantly due to effort. Taking away one person’s prosperity does nothing to stimulate another person’s effort. It may, however, do the opposite—persuading the poor that there is no point in striving for what is likely to be taken away from them as from the rich.
“What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.” Such a situation is patently unfair and strikes at the psychological foundation of work—the motivation to put forth effort.
“The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.” The government has no resources of its own. It gets its resources only by taking them from citizens who can afford to pay taxes. And the revenues that can be taken depend entirely on the prosperity (or lack thereof) of those citizens. Any decline in motivation to work diminishes effort and shrinks prosperity accordingly.
“When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend is the beginning of the end of any nation.” Both the getters and the givers in such a society become less motivated to work—the former because of laziness and a sense of entitlement; the latter because of resentment and a sense of futility.
“You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.” Split a loaf of bread in half and it may appear that you have created an additional loaf, but in reality you have no more than you had before. The appearance is merely an illusion. However, if you believe strongly enough that the division of the loaf—or the “redistribution of wealth”—is a form of multiplication, then the illusion has become for you a delusion, as it has for Socialists.
Rogers published the quoted passage in 1984 (the perfect year, given his theme), when the Socialist delusion was in retreat, at least in America. Today after seven years of Barack Obama and the very real possibility of a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders presidency, the delusion’s threat to democracy is stronger than ever. Which makes Rogers’ wisdom especially relevant.
Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved