The Brigands and the Bargainers
SEPTEMBER 01, 1982 by ERNEST ROSS
Mr, Rosa is an Oregon broadcast commentator and news editor especially concerned with new developments in human freedom.
Imagine a nation at civil war.
Imagine two great armies, intermingled guerrilla-style, battling in every city, every day, year in and year out.
Imagine the two factions’ spokesmen, the intellectual lieutenants, interviewed every night on national television, calmly commenting on the terrible, destructive results of the chaos perpetuated by their opposing ideas.
Imagine the people looking on, bewildered and increasingly bitter, as the war divides them—splitting families, neighborhoods, universities, cities and states. See in your mind’s eye the citizens’ raw frustration as the civil war first propels their lives into stagnation and finally, into a slow disintegration. Conceive of these people drawn by the call of survival into resentful, envious gangs, looting one another’s property and livelihoods.
If you can envision this, you have grasped not an imaginary war, but a real one. The war is not in Northern Ireland, Beirut or El Salvador.
It is the civil war of economics in modern America.
The two armies represent diametrically opposed ethics—the ethics of the Brigands and the ethics of the Bargainers.
The outcome of the war is far from decided.
Both sides are energetically trying to convince more people to join their camps. Their intellectual lieutenants are the economists, who also act as high-level recruiters. They are doing their best to persuade influential politicians, teachers, students, businessmen and workers to “join up.”
Choices About Right and Wrong
Of course, the economists have by and large already decided which camps they favor. They have done so on the basis of a fundamental ideational force which motivates all men. That ideational force is ethics.
Ethics is the branch of philosophy which deals with choices. Specifically, ethics is concerned with choices about right and wrong.
No one escapes the motivations of ethics. It is literally, by the nature of things, impossible to do so.
In order to live on this planet at all, each of us must make choices about what he considers right for his survival or wrong for it. Indeed, formal ethics, as codified sets of standards for living, undoubtedly evolved from observations of fundamental choices, about what was pro-life or anti-life.
Therefore, in judging which camp to join in the American economic civil war, we must decide which side is governed by the ethics favoring human life and which side is governed by the ethics destructive to human life.
My contention is that the ethics of the Bargainers is pro-life and that the ethics of the Brigands is anti-life.
But how do I know? Who are the Brigands and the Bargainers? What, in practice, do they stand for?
I recently sent spies into each camp. Here are the summaries of my agents’ observations.
First, the report of my spy in the Brigands’ camp:
“The first thing I noticed upon infiltrating this enclave is an air of pervasive tension. It is not the healthy tension of minds eager to engage in exciting new work, but the corrosive tension of fear.
“After surreptitiously observing and interviewing everyone from lowly workers to top brass bureaucrats, I have concluded that a fundamental premise underlies all economic actions in this camp: Everyone believes that the way to ‘get things done’ is to force someone else to do them. This is the ethical heart of those you have tentatively designated the Brigands. I believe the designation is appropriate.
“If a bridge or hospital or road or store is needed, the labor is conscripted. The money to pay for construction is taken from the people either directly through a penalty on wages or production (called ‘taxation’) or indirectly through expansion of the fiat monetary system (called ‘inflation’). These things are implemented at the discretion of the state—often under threat of fines, imprisonment or worse against those citizens foolish enough to resist.
“You must understand that all wealth is considered to be first and foremost the property of the state. As one elderly gentleman cynically put it to me, ‘Everyone’s belongings belong to everyone else.’ The official state euphemism is, ‘All wealth belongs to the people.’ In practice, it is the state—or rather, those privileged few who govern it—which owns the wealth.
“I have observed that the psychological/economic consequences on the average individual are extreme. No man feels that his possessions, his residence or his work’s products are secure (despite official slogans that the Brigands’ system provides the ultimate in ‘Social Security’). Each man is perpetually suspicious of others, fearing that they may be, or have connections with, politically more powerful people who could, on almost a moment’s notice, uproot all that he has. As a consequence, this is a staggering, stagnant economy.
“Except among the young, fire-eyed idealists (who believe the slogans because they’ve not yet been worn down by the system), there is simply no individual incentive to work hard. As one weary middle-aged man told me, ‘I should work my hands to the bone? For what, when what I make today they will take tomorrow?’
“What real work people do engage in is in ‘The Underground,’ the black market. Compared to the official state economy, I must say, The Underground flourishes. Even with the severe, crushing penalties for participation in black market ventures, The Underground alone offers the promise of significant improvement in one’s personal and family life. Even so, the black market is not truly a free economy; psychologically, the fear of discovery by the Brigands’ agents always hangs heavily and gloomily in the background.
“This was the essence of my observations. Details of the mismanagement, shortages, inefficiencies, breakdowns and so forth, follow . . .”
The Bargainers’ Camp
And here is the report of my man sent to the Bargainers’ camp:
“Well, sir, first I must say that you gave me an unexpectedly easy and exhilarating assignment! At no time did I feel like a spy! I didn’t have to ‘infiltrate’ anything. I simply walked or drove (transportation for a quick and reasonable fee is readily available everywhere) and no one both ered me. In fact, the atmosphere was one of cheerful helpfulness, even though everyone seemed quite busy.
“After interviewing a representative cross-section of this enclave, I have concluded that most everyone believes the way to ‘get things done’ is to do them yourself—and if you can’t, then you negotiate with someone else to do the work or help you. This negotiation process—which they call ‘bargaining’—is largely automatic. Or, perhaps it just seemed that way to me because they do it so naturally.
“For example, if an individual wants to buy a television set, he simply walks into a store (or several stores, in a process called ‘shopping around’), looks over the types of T.V. sets (called ‘brands,’ representing different, private manufacturers), decides which one he wants and then pays for it. Often he will pay with small, privately minted metal castings called ‘coins,’ usually of gold or silver. But more often, he pays by ‘check’ or ‘credit card,’ systems which act as claims on gold or silver (or notes for same) which the citizen has stored in any of a dozen varieties of private institutions called ‘banks,’ ‘S and L’s,’ ‘brokerage houses’ and so on. There is no official government currency.
“(As a side note, I ran into my counterpart from the Brigands’ camp. He told me that there were always long lines at state stores—except those run especially for the bureaucracy. I never found this to be true in this enclave, although I did once have to stand in line for nearly two hours to see a popular anti-tyranny science-fiction movie called ‘Star Wars III.’)
“The way things work here is like this:
“If a bridge or hospital or road or store is needed, people pool their wealth to build it—usually with the hope of charging other people for the use of the facility, eventually offsetting the original investment and all the while bringing in ‘profits’ (a type of income for entrepreneurs). Sometimes, incredibly, these people will build certain facilities—as to house the indigent—with money raised entirely through donations; there seems to be no shortage of private generosity!
“The Bargainers’ system, I have observed, provides enormous incentives. Virtually everyone feels that if he works hard, he can, sooner or later, significantly improve his persona] and family life. As paradoxical as it may sound, the ever-present opportunity to risk their economic necks makes these people feel secure! (They even have a name for that opportunity—freedom, and a popular slogan to express it—‘The Land of Opportunity.’)
“I cannot honestly say there is an ‘underground’ economy here; it is all above ground! The state does not enter the picture by either restricting or subsidizing trade.
“There does appear to be a mini-real state here. I wish to emphasize, these people are not anarchists. But the state’s activities are strictly defined and limited to defensive-related actions—military, police, courts. The people seem constantly watchful to keep the state in check. Indeed, to my surprise, they have devised innovative systems to handle things which might otherwise be state functions, such as private courts and some private police. Even the military is handled through private financing (a type of insurance policy), the people feeling that their liberty is a good investment.
“This concludes the basic summation of my observations. Details of the efficiencies, high productivity, variety and quality of goods and services and financing methods follow . . . ‘
Of course, in our modern America, the camps of the Brigands and Bar-gainers are intertwined; they are our mixed economy. Often the ethical loyalties of individuals themselves are stretched and bounced between the Brigands and the Bargainers.
Whether we wish it or not, we are all in the flay, all involved in the American civil war of economics.
Free economics is the banner of the Bargainers; coercive economics is the banner of the Brigands. I’m joining the Bargainers.
Where do your ethical loyalties lead you?