Mark W. Hendrickson
Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. These articles are from The Epoch Times, and Visionandvalues.org, a publication of Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: A Force To Be Reckoned With
Whatever else you may think of her, first-time Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is a great American success story. Hers is a classic “triumph of the underdog” tale. Nobody expected her to upset 10-term incumbent Congressman and Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Joe Crowley, in last June’s Democratic primary in her New York City congressional district, but she did. Using her apartment as her campaign headquarters and going door to door in her district, AOC proved once again that a motivated, hard-working American can succeed against long odds.
AOC is clever and shrewd in some ways, embarrassingly clueless in others. On the positive side, she is media savvy and shows astute political instincts. On the negative side, to put it mildly, her understanding of American government is deficient (she didn’t even know what the three branches of government are), her grasp of economic and history is minimal (she espouses the ideology of socialism despite its inherent flaws, e.g., no economic calculation or coordination is possible without private property, market-based prices, and a profit-and-loss calculus), and she seems oblivious to elementary arithmetic, as evidenced by her proposals for Uncle Sam to spend tens of trillions of dollars more than exist in spendable form.
Conservatives seem to think AOC will self-destruct by repeatedly showing her economic obtuseness, but they are wrong. They are underestimating her ability to exploit media and her political acumen. Last summer after her primary victory, AOC was a guest on “The View.” Channeling King David’s son Absalom — the prototype for using flattery and charm to further one’s political ambitions — she effusively hugged each of the five hostesses, gushing and giving them her best “Oh, I’m so privileged to meet you” greeting.
In her interview on “60 Minutes,” she alternately voiced clever, quotable sound bites at the expense of Republicans and responded to questions about her apparent factual inaccuracies by playing the role of a disarmingly innocent political neophyte who admittedly hadn’t mastered all the details, but whose heart is in the right place.
On Twitter, she drops the innocent act and reveals herself to be a rough-and-tumble street fighter. Examples: She rallied to the support of fellow freshman congresswoman Rashida Tlaib after Tlaib publicly referred to President Trump as a “motherf*****,” tweeting, “I got your back.” She also isn’t bashful about disrespecting non-Republicans. Advised by one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman to take a more moderate approach, she caustically tweeted, “New party, who dis?”
Like it or not, AOC, by virtue of her two-million-plus Twitter followers and as the fresh new face alongside Bernie Sanders at the forefront of America’s democratic socialist movement, has established herself as a force to be reckoned with on the national stage. Her fund-raising clout is bound to be considerable. This will enable her to chart an independent course, much to the frustration of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Expect AOC to drag Democrats even further to the left whether they really want to go that way or not.
Politically, her proposals — no matter how over-the-top, ridiculous, or unviable — will actually enhance rather than hurt her popularity. As the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote nearly six decades ago, it no longer matters, politically, “whether a measure is fit to produce the ends aimed at. What alone counts for [the politician] is whether the majority of voters favor or reject it.” Sadly, wisdom and knowledge are not nearly as important in democratic politics as impassioned promises for a Santa Claus government to give voters free goods. Voters believe in the Santa Claus fantasy, and AOC is playing Santa to the hilt, promising free health care, free college, etc.
Another factor enhancing AOC’s popularity is her public stance that she would rather lose her seat in Congress than compromise her principles. In this day and age when few politicians are known for sticking to their principles, AOC stands out from the crowd.
She may know precious little about sound economics, but she has a keen nose for power. That is why she advocates the abolition of the Electoral College — because it is an obstacle to the mighty (and mighty dangerous) power of unbridled majoritarianism that our wise Founders rightly understood to be one of the greatest threats to rights and liberty.
The important question going forward will not be the mind of AOC, but what kind of heart she has. Like most prominent leaders of socialist movements, she has a knack for taking care of Number 1. I am referring to her reported unwillingness to divide the wealth equally when her own financial interest is involved. A larger concern is her refusal, so far, to condemn the murderous regime (murder by bullets and starvation) of Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro. This raises the question of whether her support for socialism is that of a naive enthusiast or a convicted fanatic. Let’s hope that her mind isn’t so blinded by the imagined glory of her “grand plan” for a more humane world that she lacks the compassion to disavow socialist policies when they hurt the very people whom they were supposed to help.
“Justice” Is the Word of the Year, and “Social Justice” Is Its Orwellian Opposite
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has declared “justice” its “Word of the Year” for 2018, owing to a 74 percent year-over-year increase in searches for its definition.
The simple, everyday meaning of justice is the best: treating others fairly. Politically, it means that laws are to be written and administered so that everyone’s legal rights are impartially upheld.
Perhaps the reason why so many people are looking up the definition of “justice” is owing to the confusion caused by political activists twisting its meaning to advance their ideological agendas. Americans have always cherished the ideal of justice, and so those who would reform America seek to legitimize their political objectives by cloaking it in the garb of justice.
Most of the confusion stems from the use of the phrase “social justice.” This is a linguistically problematic phrase — a solecism. It is a pleonasm — a redundancy. Justice, without “social” to modify it, is inherently a social ideal. It’s about how we treat each other. You may say that a person isn’t being just with himself, but that is a private matter of no concern to the government. Only in the social realm of interpersonal interactions does justice properly become a matter of public policy.
Social Virtues — The concept of justice embraced by our Founding Fathers had been clearly articulated in 1759 by the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith cited three cardinal social virtues: prudence, justice, and beneficence.
By prudence, Smith meant that the first social obligation of any competent person is to provide for his own needs and wants so as not to burden others.
Smith considered the second social virtue, justice, to be the most important. It is “the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice” of society. Justice, according to Smith, “does no real positive good” and is “but a negative virtue” that “only hinders us from hurting our neighbor.” Writing 90 years after Smith, Frederic Bastiat, in his essay “The Law,” echoed Smith by defining justice as the absence of injustice, i.e., a society in which nobody’s rights are violated.
Smith writes that the third social virtue, beneficence (i.e., doing good for others), merits the highest praise and is the crown jewel of a good society. Beneficence, though, is never a duty: “Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force.”
If some citizens were to take the wealth of another citizen and give it to someone in need, that is an ersatz “beneficence” and an antisocial act of aggression against the basic right of property, thereby violating justice. (I write more about the difference between genuine and counterfeit charity in my article about the Good Samaritan.)
The ideal of justice shared by Smith and the founders meant that every citizen was to stand equal before the law, each having the same rights and responsibilities. (Obviously, owing to the abomination of slavery and unenlightened 18th-century attitudes toward women’s rights, the founding generation didn’t achieve complete justice.)
Each white, male citizen, whether rich or poor, was entitled to impartial justice, i.e., the same government protection of his basic rights of life, liberty, and property, as stipulated in the Bill of Rights. And each shared the same responsibilities inherent in that rights-based system: 1) to not infringe on the rights of fellow citizens; 2) to provide for one’s self and dependents (Smith’s virtue of “prudence”) since nobody had a right to someone else’s property; 3) to produce something of value to others in the social division of labor as the means of self-support.
In such a system of ordered liberty, each person reaps what he sows. However, under the influence of egalitarian ideas — the notion that, even though people quite naturally differ by aptitude, effort, and economic productivity, there should be economic parity between citizens — “social justice” advocates reject traditional justice.
Emerging Tyranny — Progressives and socialists want to redistribute wealth by replacing equal treatment before the law (i.e., justice) with a government-engineered regime of unequal rights and unequal responsibilities — based in the Communist ideology “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” “Social justice” means that those who diligently fulfill their social responsibility to produce wealth for others should also bear the additional responsibility of financially supporting those who do not fulfill their own responsibility to produce wealth.
Furthermore, those who fail to discharge their social responsibility to provide for themselves are given a “right” to a share of the property of those who do provide for themselves. In other words, under “social justice” theory, the rights of the non-productive are greater than the rights of the productive.
Thus, under “social justice,” traditional justice is inverted and perverted. Furthermore, peaceful social cooperation is supplanted with a socially disruptive political skirmish, in which citizens use government to appropriate the property of other citizens. In short, “social justice” is a code word for “antisocial injustice” — a linguistic deception that is positively Orwellian.
“Social justice” is Orwellian (not to mention un-American) in another sense, too: It seeks to overturn the American concept of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution that holds government to be the protector of the sacred rights of life, liberty, and property, instead of being the instrument for violating those rights.
As John Adams warned, “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”
We see signs of anarchical social decay and emerging tyranny all around us today. Under “social justice,” those who hold the reins of political power seek to dictate how much that Citizen A must do for Citizen B. “Social justice” warriors are top-down central planners — would-be tyrants — who believe that they are entitled to reshape society according to their vision. In their plans, they look down on their fellow man.
Smith wrote that these planners (he called them “the m[e]n of system”) view their fellow citizens as men on a chessboard to be moved about and controlled by the planner. Bastiat used the metaphors of a potter and his clay and a pruner and his trees to describe the power that planners want over their fellow man. This evokes Orwell’s cynical but accurate assessment of socialism in practice: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The “social justice” crowd should remember the response of Jesus when a man asked him to tell his brother to share his inheritance with him. Jesus replied, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” The “social justice” advocates believe that they are more qualified than the most-just man who ever walked the Earth to impose a certain distribution of wealth on society. No wonder even the mild-mannered Smith cited their “arrogance.”
So, what is the antidote for “social injustice” with its antisocial injustice leading toward socialistic tyranny? It is simply to reaffirm justice. Let’s hope that those currently intoxicated by the Orwellian catnip of “social justice” awake to an honest recognition of what justice truly means.
Understanding “Democratic Socialism”
The goal of democratic socialists is socialism — i.e., government control of economic production. Genuine socialism, when practiced, inevitably leads to economic stagnation and ruin for the following reasons:
1. It destroys incentives.
2. It commits the intellectual error of treating human beings as fungible (i.e., the same, and therefore interchangeable) and so, socialist planners assume that their bureaucratic minions have the same specific knowledge and special talents that enable private entrepreneurs to create wealth more productively and efficiently.
3. It discards market-based prices — i.e., those based on supply and demand, thereby losing the ability to coordinate production rationally and allocate scarce resources efficiently. The inevitable result is the overproduction of some goods — thereby wasting scarce resources — and the underproduction of others, meaning that many people are unable to procure the things they want, making them poorer.
4. Central economic planners, no matter how brilliant or well-intentioned, don’t and can’t know what you and I want as well as you and I know what we want. Capitalism is a system of consumer sovereignty under which firms profit by producing what we want instead of producing what the government commands, as is the case under socialism. (Note: Cronyism isn’t capitalistic but socialistic, because cronyism involves governments, not consumers — “we the people” — determining which businesses prosper.)
The adjective “democratic” is employed to render socialism more palatable, more American, but the label can’t prevent the inherently impoverishing consequences of socialism — of government-planned and -controlled production.
“Democratic” merely specifies the means to the end. The patron saint of socialism, Karl Marx, wrote in The Communist Manifesto that there are two paths to socialism — the quick one of a violent revolution by “exploited” workers (his preference), or the more gradual, progressive implementation of socialism via democracy (see Chapter 2 of the Manifesto). A majority of U.S. workers have been too prosperous and satisfied with life to launch bloody revolutions, leaving the democratic path to socialism as the only viable strategy for American socialists to pursue.
The label “democratic socialism,” like its kindred labels “progressive” and “liberal,” have acted as fig leaves for American socialists, hiding their ultimate goal. In recent years, American socialists have been able to strive for socialism while having plausible deniability that they are socialists. They have truthfully stated that they haven’t explicitly advocated the government takeover of all the means of economic production. Here they have been coy. Instead of calling for complete control, their perennial agenda has called for more control. How much more? They never say — it’s open-ended. You are not likely to hear a socialist politician say that there is too much government control over economic production for the simple reason that socialists believe in and want government control over economic production. But it is significant that, led by Bernie Sanders, progressives now feel safe enough to come out of the closet and admit that they are (democratic) socialists.
Don’t be fooled by the adjective “democratic.” It is not benign. Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t democracy good? Isn’t that what America is all about? Well, as the TV commercial used to say, “Not exactly.”
The word democracy is linguistically problematical, due to ambiguities and different usages. On the positive side, the United States is a democratic system, meaning that people are to be free and that our political system makes government subservient and accountable to the people. The 19th-century poet, Walt Whitman, articulated the essence of America’s democratic ideal thusly:
“… Government can do little positive good to the people, [but] it may do an immense deal of harm. And here is where the beauty of the Democratic principle comes in. Democracy would prevent all this harm. It would have no man’s benefit achieved at the expense of his neighbors. . . . This one single rule, rationally construed and applied, is enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government; to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men.”
The benign version of democracy is rights-based. So is our American constitution.
However, democracy is also a theory of power, and government power poses a perpetual threat to individual rights. That is why American founders James Madison and John Adams abhorred democracy while Communist/socialist icons Marx and Lenin were enthusiastic advocates of democracy.
The contrast is stark:
Adams: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
Madison: “. . . democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Marx: “The way to achieve socialism is for the masses to ‘win the battle of democracy.’ ” (Manifesto, Chapter 2).
Lenin: “A democracy is a state which recognizes the subjection of the minority to the majority.”
When democracy becomes crude majority rule, nobody’s rights are safe. Instead of peacefully trading with each other in a system where property rights are secure, society degenerates into a vicious squabble as various groups of citizens demand that government give them benefits paid for by other citizens. Many historians have observed the unstable, destructive tendencies of democracy, but the British archeologist and historian Sir Flinders Petrie best articulates the danger of democratic socialism: “When democracy has attained full power, the majority without capital necessarily eat up the capital of the minority and civilization steadily decays.”
Simply because a majority favors something doesn’t make it right or just. Remember, democratic majorities voted for the executions of Jesus and Socrates — two of the most heinous, unjust events in human history. Crude majoritarian democracy can be as violent and oppressive as any other form of tyranny.
Democracy in the eyes of democratic socialists boils down to this: There are more of us than there are of you, so we will take your property and dispose of it as we see fit. This is the primitive ethos of “might makes right.” It embodies the immorality of the thug, the robber, the thief. In the fraudulent name of “social justice,” it tramples genuine justice. It is hell-bent on replacing our rights-based constitutional order with top-down central economic planning — i.e., with a tyranny that dictates who produces what for whom.
Democratic socialists want to replace our rights-based, capitalistic system — a system which, despite its imperfections and inconsistencies, has brought more freedom and more prosperity to more people than any other system — with socialism, a system that has oppressed and impoverished people wherever it has been implemented (see Venezuela today).
Sadly, the degree of economic and historical ignorance among Americans may result in a majority voting for our own destruction. Wouldn’t future historians have a field day explaining such folly?
Bill of Rights Day 2018: A Time to Reflect
Dec. 15, 2018, was Bill of Rights Day. The Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments) appended to our constitution took effect on Dec. 15, 1791 — 227 years ago. In viewing the status of the Bill of Rights today, it’s possible to adopt either a “the glass is half empty” or a “half full” perspective.
Certainly, relative to China, the Bill of Rights keeps Americans freer. In China, the government is oppressing the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang Province in ways specifically forbidden in the United States by the Bill of Rights. The Chinese government can order one of its agents to live in a family’s house, or send anyone without a trial to a “re-education camp” merely for having given voice to religious ideas, thereby separating parents from their children and often depriving families of their primary breadwinner.
Such tyranny is blocked in the United States by our First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion; Third Amendment, which states that government agents cannot occupy houses without permission; Fourth Amendment, the ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures”; Fifth Amendment, prohibiting any deprivation of liberty without “due process of law” — i.e., a lawful public trial by jury and with guaranteed legal counsel as per our Sixth Amendment; and the Eighth Amendment, which bans “cruel and unusual punishments,” such as the arbitrary separation of citizens from their families even though they have done no harm.
Yet, as grateful as we should be that the Bill of Rights protects us from the same cruel oppression of the Chinese regime, the Bill of Rights’ legal protections for Americans have eroded over the past century or so. Just as the body of our Constitution has been mutilated over the years, so it is with our Bill of Rights.
State Power — As is the case in China, the aggression against individual rights come from those who believe that the state must have the power to overrule individual rights in the name of the common good. The ideology that exalts the state as above all is diametrically opposed to the Founders’ vision and values.
The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to codify into the supreme law of the land the principle of government set forth in our Declaration of Independence. The essential premise of the Declaration is that “all men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and that the purpose of government — its very raison d’être — is “to secure these rights.” Further, “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”
In other words, the government was to serve under citizens, not rule over them.
The Founders — generally wise and learned men — were students of history. They knew that the perennial threat to those sacred rights of individuals was the power exercised by governments. The entire Bill of Rights was written to circumscribe the power and ability of the federal government to infringe on individual rights. This point is unmistakable when one reads the Ninth and Tenth Amendments together. Indeed, these two are rightly understood as Siamese twins.
The Ninth deals with rights. It states, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In other words, if a particular right is not specified in the Constitution, the default assumption is that the people have that right.
The Tenth expressly limits the federal government’s power: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people” — i.e., if the Constitution fails to explicitly authorize or stipulate a specific power, then the federal government does not have that power.
There you have it: Where the Constitution is silent, the benefit of the doubt always belongs to individuals’ rights over government power.
Despite that clear language, the federal government has arrogated to itself power to intrude into previously private economic matters. Those extra-constitutional — and therefore unconstitutional — areas of intervention include agriculture, housing, labor, energy, education, health care, retirement, and so on.
Two of the more pernicious results of the expansion of the federal government beyond its constitutional confines are: 1) an unfathomably gigantic national debt that will cruelly burden our children; and 2) a chronic toxicity in public discourse now that nearly every corner of our economic lives has become public and political instead of a private economic issue.
The Founders viewed private property as key inalienable rights that government must uphold. Said John Adams, “If ‘Thou shalt not covet’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.” Said James Madison, “[T]hat alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man what is his own.”
Thus, the founders adopted the Fifth Amendment stipulating that “No person . . . [should] be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” That meant that even if 99 percent of Americans believed that a fellow citizen had accumulated too much wealth, they could not justly take it from him, even by majority vote. “Due process of law” referred to a legal trial wherein the only justification for taking property from a person was in retribution for crimes committed by that person; an innocent person’s property was off-limits.
That all changed, of course, with the adoption of the Sixteen0th Amendment authorizing a progressive (Marxian) income tax. Since then, democratic majorities have striven to plunder as much private wealth as they can to fund their grandiose government programs.
Erosion of Rights — The progressive ideology that believes that state power is the proper agent to attain a just society consistently wars against the Bill of Rights. For example, progressives — not so unlike the Communist rulers of China — have whittled away at the First Amendment rights of free speech and religion.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, close to 90 percent of U.S. colleges “maintain policies that restrict or could restrict student and faculty expression.” And who can forget the Obama administration’s relentless insistence that religious sects that view abortion as murder be compelled to purchase insurance that would cover abortions?
The progressive left also wages perennial war against the Second Amendment right of non-criminals to own firearms. When one remembers the Founders’ vision of government — that all of its powers are derived from the people — then to say that government law enforcement officers (the deputed agents of the people) may carry guns to defend the population, but that the people themselves (the principals whose rights government agents are charged with protecting) may not themselves own, have, carry, and use those same means to defend their lives is absurd.
The true polarization of America’s body politic today is the conflict between the principle that individual rights are primary and government power secondary (the Founders’ vision) and the progressives’ belief that government power must be supreme so that allegedly wise leaders can plan and construct a great society by controlling citizens’ wealth and lives.
It all boils down to the age-old battle between freedom and tyranny.
As we reflect on our hallowed, but tattered, Bill of Rights this year, we would do well to recall an observation that U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster made in 1837: “In every generation, there are those who want to rule well — but they mean to rule. They promise to be good masters — but they mean to be masters.”
The Bill of Rights may be the best legal protection against such ambitious people ever devised in human history. But no constitution or bill of rights is ever self-enforcing. The people have to have the will and determination to uphold it.
Those of us who love liberty and understand the importance of individual rights have an uphill task ahead of us. We need to rebuild the ethical foundations of the American republic if we are to remain a free people. *