Sugar Mountain

As November creeps upon us, the promises of politicians mutate from airy visions to frantic pleas to the masses for a chance to “fix” things. We voters con ourselves every election with the same childish desire to have things made right. We treat our politicians as push-over parents. When want ice cream three meals a day and cotton candy for dessert. We want to live on Sugar Mountain.

At one time, the American ideal was to create a political atmosphere within which individual citizens could work to better themselves and those they cared about. Legislative bodies still had serious debates not only on the merits of proposed legislation, but also on whether the proposed activities should even be a role of government. In the decades after FDR, government programs were increasingly debated without any premise of legislative restraint, but on whether a program could be shown to do good somewhere, somehow.

Of course, doing good is an easy thing to demonstrate if one’s criteria for good is shallow enough. Minimum-wage advocates swell with pride as they see words on a page forcing employers to pay up, not cognizant of all the unintended consequences like youth unemployment. Forced maternity leave gives interventionists a motherly glow as they contemplate how much better the world is for their efforts, not bothering to see the unemployed person who could have had been hired or the job that was not created for lack of expansion capital.

A tyrant knows perfectly well the destruction he/she is causing. A liberal pretends it does not exist. His/her idea of social order is one for which there is a director, an authority, a body of Wise Ones. When the Wise Ones have all the right sensibilities (read “liberal”) all is well. Keeping everyone fed, clothed, and bandaged becomes a simple matter of imposing order on the recalcitrant–those nasty folks who dare to place their own interest above that of society.

It is not just a question of whether the liberal’s values are sound, as if this kind of imposed social order is acceptable as long as it serves a good purpose. The imposition of this kind of order on a social body is bad in itself. It attempts something that cannot be done–to orchestrate the economic interactions among millions of people for the better. Its actual effect is to louse up the system.

It is more than a little ironic that one person acting out of self-interest within his/her immediate sphere of influence does more good for others than an army of liberals preaching the gospel of selflessness. The person who works hard for a promotion or to grow a business appears to have a limited vision of humanity. In fact, his/her efforts overflow with benefits for others. Every penny she spends on “selfish” desires is an opportunity for others to gain from offering value to her. Every penny she saves is employed in the support of other businesses in other places offering value to other people. She need not give one dime to charity* or to have thought one whit about society’s needs to have served her fellow man brilliantly. She can remain blind to the particulars, but rest easy in the knowledge that thousands are better off for her so-called selfish efforts.

A society of such self-interested people organize themselves to the benefit of all, but they do not plan the details. Indeed, they cannot. Each one can influence what happens only a link or two down the chain of good that is started by their doing a better job or growing a business. It is easy to see the espresso cart owner profiting from our latte purchase. It is not so easy to see how he spends that money. Beyond that point, the trail of potential good splits into so many branches it is impossible to predict which will manifest. As it turns out, that is a good thing.

In the end we can be assured that good things happen on the whole when people act in their own self-interest, because it is in each person’s self-interest to serve others. The corporate ladder-climber may seem to the bohemian or the scholar to lack depth, but she is helping others get what they want at every turn. We may fret that the espresso stand guy buys whiskey rather than books, but some Jack Daniels employee is putting her kid through college because of it.

When some authority figure or body of such takes from the productive to give to others, the result is theft masquerading as social justice. It may make someone somewhere feel less guilty about having too much or smug about having too little, but it invariably hurts someone else in the process. Moreover, such an imposed order rarely accomplishes its stated purpose. Prohibition made the nation float on a lake of gin. Marijuana laws fill prisons with people who have harmed no one and yet the country tokes away. Book bans prompt subversive and naughty books to abound. Welfare creates a permanent underclass and health care laws make costs skyrocket. It is genuinely puzzling that some human beings still think all they have to do is pull the right levers and all will be well.

The economic order that best serves its members, including the less fortunate, evolves naturally. We each want what we want and go about trying to get it every day. Other people try to guess what we will want and seek to provide it. When we are each allowed to benefit fully from our efforts through strong property rights and limited government, good flows from good. Even the least generous among us cannot help but benefit others through his/her self-interested actions.**

Liberals think they can persuade us all to work every day with the greater good of society in mind. Failing that, they are willing to spend gargantuan amounts of our money to force their vision of the greater good on us. For a time, such pompous interventions in an economic system go unnoticed. In the case of the US, the last 100 years has seen dramatic improvements in the lives of virtually everyone in this country even as the Leviathan feeds and grows. But this is a testament to the robustness of capitalism rather than support for big government. Along with the obvious good has come a soon-to-be-obvious bad–a financial system that cannot be sustained.

We free-market minded people don’t believe in Sugar Mountain and for that we are hated and ignored. No worries, for the sweet delusion of the liberal mindset will soon bring rain. The candy will melt and growing up will be hard. The barkers and the colored balloons will be gone, but in their place will sprout a thousand opportunities to be a happy adult, helping others through helping yourself. You won’t be twenty, but you won’t want to be. You won’t even miss Sugar Mountain.


*Though of course she may choose to do so.

**Assuming that he/she is prevented from taking things by force or fraud.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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