A Lesson in Government Intrusion: Rights Kind of Matter

by Zachary Bartsch:

There is a case to be made for respecting property rights. And we don’t even have to get religious about it.Whether it’s oppressive taxes, crippling regulation, or simple theft, we’re all worse off when we remove the moral constraints of social interaction.

Bill of RightsI don’t know whether rights exist. That’s a tough question. But I do know that it’s useful when we at least act as if traditionally western rights do actually exist. In the short run, respecting others doesn’t make everyone better off. A thief could violate your property rights, steal your shoes, and then have more shoes. Clearly he’d be better off.

But if I respect your right to own property, abstain from theft, and you therefore invest your excess in order to invent or to produce more goods for others, then I will definitely be better off. I get to share in the fruits of your productive efforts. Not only that, but you were happy to do it! The folks in government could take a lesson.

There is however a caveat. What if the bureaucrat knows how to invest my property better than I do? That’s the question retorted by many government advocates. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we went and saved the Syrian people from each other?” They say, “You don’t REALLY need that 2nd car, or additional pair of jeans, or chest freezer. We’d obviously all be better off by spending tax money on a more secure Syria, right?” Sounds plausible.

However, that would-be planner is making a serious mistake. He is thinking in the short run, just like the shoe thief. No doubt, that peace in Syria would be a darn fine investment, and future generations would probably enjoy it too. The problem is that stealing in the name of lofty goals becomes a norm, and people soon begin to expect it. Regardless of whether military action in Syria is a good idea or not, it sets an impoverishing precedent. It doesn’t matter that the government has some special authority to steal legally. If the norm is that your stuff will be taken, then you stop making stuff in the first place. It’s not about the resources which went to pacifying Syria. It’s about the wealth that we will never be created because we expect that we won’t get to keep and enjoy it.

It’s even worse than that though. Whether I like Syrian foreign policy or I perceive the tax as theft doesn’t change the fact that my wages won’t buy me as much as they otherwise would. I have less incentive to work because I don’t take as much home – instead it went to the government for military equipment. In most cases In either care nor know the uses of my money. I respond the same way: I produce less than I would at a higher wage. In fancy economic-talk, we call this a dynamic effect. When the government taxes us, it is not a simple transfer from us to them. We take the taxes into consideration and then work and produce less because, as far as we’re concerned, we are actually earning a lower real wage.

Expectations are a moving target. When we act like rights exist and can trust that our property will be respected, we are more willing to increase the wealth of ourselves and the people around us. Even if you don’t believe in private property, you’ll still respond to a lower wage just like everyone else.

Progressives who want to plan society like it’s a chess game or redistribute wealth like it’s a pie are sorely mistaken. Overbearing taxes and regulations on property both have the same effect. We expect to keep and control less of our own stuff.

It’s very popular and modern to say that morality is relative and that rights are an archaic matter of faith. Despite such criticism, they serve a useful social function whether you believe in them or not. Asserting rights creates expectations of trust. And when we can trust that we will keep our own stuff, we are more willing to produce more with the peace of mind that we are secure in our wealth. The question isn’t whether rights exist.The question is whether we are better off with them or without them.


Zachary Bartsch is a PhD student at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. He earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Economics from the University of Louisville. He also blogs on economics and philosophy at pacvae.wordpress.com.

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  1. Pingback: A Lesson in Government Intrusion: Rights Kind of Matter | pacvae

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