Government is taking us a long way down the Road to Serfdom. That doesn't just mean that more of us must work for the government. It means that we are changing from independent, self-responsible people into a submissive flock. The welfare state kills the creative spirit.
F.A. Hayek, an Austrian economist living in Britain, wrote The Road to Serfdom in 1944 as a warning that central economic planning would extinguish freedom. The book was a hit. Reader's Digest produced a condensed version that sold 5 million copies.
Hayek meant that governments can't plan economies without planning people's lives. After all, an economy is just individuals engaging in exchanges. The scientific-sounding language of President Obama's economic planning hides the fact that people must shelve their own plans in favor of government's single plan.
At the beginning of The Road to Serfdom, Hayek acknowledges that mere material wealth is not all that's at stake when the government controls our lives: "The most important change ... is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people."
This shouldn't be controversial. If government relieves us of the responsibility of living by bailing us out, character will atrophy. The welfare state, however good its intentions of creating material equality, can't help but make us dependent. That changes the psychology of society.
I'll explore this tonight on my Fox Business show, 8 p.m. Eastern (rebroadcast Friday at 10 p.m.).
According to the Tax Foundation, 60 percent of the population now gets more in government benefits than it pays in taxes. What does it say about a society in which more than half the people live at the expense of the rest? Worse, the dependent class is growing. The 60 percent will soon be 70 percent.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin seems to understand the threat: He worries that "more people have a stake in the welfare state than in free enterprise. This is a road that Hayek perfectly described as 'the road to serfdom.'" (Tonight I will ask Ryan why, if he understands this, he voted for TARP and the auto bailouts.)
Kurt Vonnegut understood the threat of government-imposed equality. His short story "Harrison Bergeron" portrays a future in which no one is permitted to have any physical or intellectual advantage over anyone else. A government Handicapper General weighs down the strong and agile, masks the faces of the beautiful, and distracts the smart.
So far, the Handicapper General is just fantasy. But Vice President Joe Biden did shout at the Democratic National Convention: "Everyone is your equal, and everyone is equal to you." If he meant that we're all equal in rights and before the law, fine. If he meant government shouldn't put barriers in the way of opportunity, great. But statists like Biden usually have more in mind: They want government to make results more equal.
Two actual examples of the lunacy:
When colleges innovated by having students use Kindle e-book readers instead of expensive textbooks, the Justice Department sued them, complaining that the Kindle discriminates against blind students. The department also is suing the Massachusetts prison system because it makes prospective prison guards take a physical test. Since women don't do as well as men on that test, Justice claims the test discriminates against women.
Arthur Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute, says statism is becoming the "central organizing power in our economy," and that the battle between free enterprise and statism will shape our futures. He remains optimistic because a recent poll showed that 70 percent of Americans want free enterprise. I'm less sanguine. In that same poll, 54 percent of Americans said government should exert more control over the economy. Brooks discounts that, claiming people forget their "core values" during crises.
But he asks the right question: Do we want a culture of takers or makers? Ryan and Brooks say most people want "the American idea": freedom and self-responsibility. I fear they want a Mommy State to take care of them. What do you think?
The choice is crucial. If we continue down the Road to Serfdom, our destination will be a poorer society, high unemployment, stagnation, and complacency.
John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.
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