Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Whose Money?

The mantra of the grouchy conservative is "my money." "I work hard for my money. You can't take my money. I don't want the government giving my money to people who won't work."

This whole line of thought assumes that your money, that is, your power to buy things, derives from your own efforts. It does not. Even if you are a one-person business, your ability to buy things depends only a little bit on how hard you work. What determines what you can buy is the economy and society you live in.

Take away the vast apparatus of the modern economy, and you would be working all day for a bowl of acorn soup in a hut roofed with elm bark. Move to Somalia, and you might be working all day for a loaf of bread that is stolen by thugs with guns before you can eat it.

Your money buys you things like iPods and gas heat and BMWs, not because you work hard, but because you live in a gigantically rich society with an extraordinarily complex and productive economy. Your work has value only because of knowledge built up by generations of people who came before us, and because of work done by millions of other people all over the world. Your ability to buy the things you want depends on a gigantic web of interconnections. To manage that web, we need huge, powerful governments.

It is a fantasy to think that we could base our complex economy on neighborly trust, honest dealing and and trading chickens for health care. Our level of economic development requires complex regulations. Look what just happened in one of the last unregulated economic sectors, derivatives trading. Boom. So now we will have regulation of derivatives trading, and the financial sector can go on. It is possible that some economic sectors could function with less regulation than they have, but very few could function without heavy state intervention. Anarchy, as you can tell from a glance at every place in history that didn't have a functioning government, is a disaster, and to ride herd on our vast, complicated, enormously rich societies requires very strong sheriffs.

Sure, you work hard. So do Eskimos and yak herders and Chinese coal miners. You are not richer than they are because you work harder; you are richer because of the place you occupy in the system of the world. You are rich because of the whole astonishing apparatus of our society, from primary schools to highways to courtrooms to conferences where scientists and bureaucrats hash out the details of which chemicals should be allowed in which products.

You are not alone, and nothing that is "yours" really belongs just to you.


Kathleen said...

thank you for this. very thoughtful and poignant.
i found you through marni's recommendation and will also pass this on!

leif said...

definitely worth posting to your best. well-put.