October 5, 2023 Reading Time: 4 minutes

The basic rules that all good parents teach their children aren’t convoluted, dense, or esoteric. Nor are they unfamiliar. They’re unassailable and obvious, and in their simplicity provide indispensable guidance for the pursuit of success and happiness in our enormously complex world:

  • Don’t hit other people (unless they intentionally and without provocation hit you first).
  • Don’t take other people’s stuff.
  • Keep your promises.
  • Be honest.
  • Don’t envy others’ good fortune.
  • Don’t make excuses for your mistakes and failings.
  • Respect other people’s peaceful habits and characteristics, even when these are unfamiliar.
  • Work hard.
  • Mind your own business.
  • Might does not make right.
  • Don’t think yourself entitled to be excused from any of these rules.

These rules are so natural and obviously good that responsible adults teach them to children as a matter of course. Everyone knows that people who practice these rules will almost certainly enjoy better lives than those experienced by people who chronically break one or more of them. And yet many people unthinkingly carve out a huge exception to these rules, imagining that some mysterious process renders these rules expendable, or even harmful, when people act collectively through political processes.

Consider the rules to avoid envy and not take other people’s stuff. Far from envy being discouraged in political dialogue and action, it is actively stoked to encourage the taking of other people’s stuff. Politicians ardently exhort audiences to covet wealth possessed by others. In tones ranging from the stentorian to the hysterical, they promise to take from the (always imprecisely defined) “rich” and to give the booty to the rest of us.

Sometimes we’re told that we deserve this wealth simply because today’s rich individuals currently have more of it than we do. On other occasions, such “redistribution” is excused with the baseless assertion that no one deserves to have multiple times more wealth than others.

Would you ever instruct your child, “Junior, if any of your classmates have nicer toys or more candy money than you have, you should envy those classmates. Stew in anger and resentment that some children currently possess more material things than you do!”

Of course, no parent would ever as much as think of feeding a child such dysfunctional advice. So why do so many adults tolerate – and even applaud — identical sentiments when expressed by politicians and pundits peddling public-policy proposals? When candidates stump for income “redistribution” on the grounds that some people have more money than other people, they play upon and fuel envy — an especially ugly and anti-social sentiment.

One reason we don’t want our kids to be envious is that envy obstructs peaceful cooperation. If Junior envies Billy and Sarah, he is less likely to seek them out as playmates or as classmates who might be able to help him study. Another reason parents discourage envious sentiments is that envy dampens children’s willingness to own their mistakes and take responsibility for their misfortunes. Envious individuals too readily blame others. And by falling into the habit of blaming others, people become less enterprising and productive. Their attention focuses more and more on taking and less and less on making. Indeed, in extreme cases, envy can turn them into thieves.

Speaking of thievery, what parent wouldn’t severely punish a child who actually took a classmate’s money or toys? What parent would excuse this offense if the child said, “I took it because Billy is richer than me”? Or if the child proclaimed, “I took it because I can use those things better than Sarah can”? I’ve yet to meet parents who would tolerate such behavior or such self-serving excuse-making in their children.

But in our politics and political discourse, we regularly not only tolerate such offenses, we celebrate them. We praise them as being — you can’t make this up —“progressive.” Government routinely takes money from Smith and gives it to Jones. One justification for “income redistribution” is simply that Smith is wealthier than Jones, so the government seizes some of what Smith has earned and “redistributes” the proceeds to Jones (who, of course, has done nothing to earn this bounty). An alternative justification is that Jones allegedly will use the money better than Smith, such as when farmer Jones is paid with Smith’s money not to grow crops, or when Jones, Inc., is given some of Smith’s money to subsidize foreign buyers’ purchases of Jones’s wares.

Whatever you think of the merits of these and countless other government programs, they involve taking people’s stuff without their consent. I call that theft. And my son, like nearly every child, was taught that taking people’s stuff without their consent is theft.

Yes, I know that ours is a republic in which we allegedly consent, by majority rule, to being taxed through the political process. But I remain uneasy. If, when he was a boy, my son had informed me that he and some friends took another classmate’s money after voting to do so, I would have been furious with him. And my fury, far from being calmed, would have intensified if he then tried to excuse his gangster behavior by assuring me that the election was a fair one in which even the victim cast a ballot and all votes were counted and given equal weights. The punishment that I would have meted out to my son would have been severe.

Our world is indeed complex, yet the basic rules for navigating this complexity are simple. First learned in childhood, these rules remain relevant and important throughout our lives. And these rules’ relevance and importance don’t disappear, or even diminish, simply because today’s majority finds it convenient to cast one or more of them aside. We should stop excusing voters and officeholders from violating these rules just because they act politically.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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