You Cannot Get Even
JUNE 01, 1978 by HANS SENNHOLZ
Dr. Sennholz heads the Department of Economics at Grove City College and is a noted writer and lecturer on monetary and economic affairs.
Government affects individual incomes by virtually every decision it makes. Agricultural programs, veterans’ benefits, health and labor and welfare expenditures, housing and community development, federal expenditures on education, social insurance, medicare and medicaid programs, and last but not least, numerous regulations and controls affect the economic conditions of every citizen. In fact, modern government has become a universal transfer agency that utilizes the political process for distributing vast measures of economic income and wealth. It preys on millions of victims in order to allocate valuable goods and services to its beneficiaries. With the latter, transfer programs are so popular that few public officials and politicians dare oppose them.
The motive powers that drive the transfer order are as varied as human design itself. Surely, the true motives are often concealed, and a hollow pretext is pompously placed in the front for show. And yet, man is more accountable for his motives than for anything else. A good motive may exculpate a poor action, but a bad motive vitiates even the finest action. Conscience is merely our own judgment of the right and wrong of our action, and therefore can never be a safe guide unless it is enlightened by a thorough understanding of the implications and consequences of our actions. Without an enlightened conscience we may do evil thoroughly and heartily.
An important spring of action for the transfer society is the desire by most people to get even in the redistribution struggle. "I have been victimized in the past by taxation, inflation, regulation, or other devices," so the argument goes, "therefore I am entitled to partake in this particular benefit." Or the time sequence may be reversed: "I’ll be victimized later in life," pleads the college student, "and therefore I want state aid and subsidy now."
This argument is probably the most powerful pacifier of conscience. It dulls our perception and discernment of what is evil and makes us slow to shun it. After all, we are merely getting back "what is rightfully our own." With a curious twist of specious deduction the modern welfare state, which continually seizes and redistributes private property by force, is defended by the friends of individual liberty and private property. "Man is entitled to the fruits of his labor," they argue, "we are merely getting back that which is rightfully and morally our own." They borrow the arguments for the private property order to sustain the political transfer order.
Surely getting back that which is rightfully and morally our own is a principle that is rooted in our inalienable right to our lives. It is a property right that springs from our human rights and from the right to life itself. It is the right to restoration of the fruits of our efforts and labors of which we are deprived by deceit, force, or any other immoral practice. It is a specific right to recovery or compensation from those who are wronging us or have injured us in the past.
This right to restoration does not beget the right to commit the very immoral act from which we seek restoration, to imitate others in acting immorally, or to seek revenge against the trespassers or innocent bystanders. But this is precisely what the "get-even" advisors urge us to do.
In an unfortunate automobile accident we are hurt or injured, or our vehicle may be damaged, because of the negligence of another driver. This gives us the right to demand restoration and compensation from the guilty party. But it does not give us the right to seize another car parked in the neighborhood, or return to the road and injure another driver. Or, our home is burglarized and we suffer deplorable losses in personal wealth and memorabilia. This does not bestow upon us the right to do likewise to others. But the "get-even" advocates are drawing this very conclusion.
He who is desirous of "getting even" in the politics of redistribution longs to join the army of beneficiaries who are presently preying on their victims. They would like to get their "money back" from whomever they can find and victimize now.
Like the victim of a burglary who becomes a burglar himself, they are searching for other victims. But in contrast to the new burglar who may be aware of the immorality of his actions, the "get-even" advocate openly defends his motives while he is pursuing his political craft.
We cannot get even with those individuals who deprived us of our property in the past. They may have long departed this life or may have fallen among the victims themselves. We cannot get even with them by enlisting in the standing army of redistributors. We merely perpetuate the evil by joining their forces. So we must stand immune to the temptations of evil, regardless of what others are doing to us. The redistribution must stop with us.
The redistributive society has victimized many millions of people through confiscatory taxation, inflation, and regulation. Government, acting as the political agency for coercive transfer, seized income and wealth from the more productive members and then redistributed the spoils to its beneficiaries. Although many millions of victims and beneficiaries were involved, which often obscures the morality of the issue, the forced transfer took place between certain individuals. It is true, the beneficiaries, who used political force to obtain the benefits, cannot easily be recognized in the mass process of transfer. But even if we could identify them, and establish a personal right to restoration, our property has been consumed long ago. A vast army of beneficiaries, together with their legions of government officials and civil servants, consumed or otherwise squandered our substance. There is nothing to retrieve from the beneficiaries who probably are poorer than ever before, having grown weak and dependent on the transfer process.
When seen in this light, the get-even argument is nothing more than a declaration of intention to join the redistribution forces. It may be born from the primitive urge for revenge against government, state or society. But it is individuals who form a government, make a state and constitute a society. By taking revenge against some of them for the injuries suffered from the hands of others, I am merely reinforcing the evil.
Revenge is a common passion that enslaves man’s mind and clouds his vision. To the savage it is a noble aspiration that makes him even with his enemies. In a civilized society that is seeking peace and harmony it is a destructive force which law seeks to suppress. But when the law itself becomes an instrument of transfer, the primitive urge for revenge may burst forth as a demand for more redistribution. It becomes a primary force that gives rise to new demands or, at least, reinforces the popular demands for economic transfer. The common passion for revenge, no matter how well concealed, undoubtedly is an important motive power of social policy that leads a free society to its own destruction.
No wealth in the world and no political distribution of this wealth can purchase the peace and harmony so essential to human existence. Peace and harmony can be found only in moral elevation that reaches into every aspect of human life. A free society is the offspring of morality that guides the actions and policies of its members. To effect a rebirth of such a society is to revive the moral principles that gave it birth in the beginning. It is individual rebirth and rededication to the inexorable principles of morality that are the power and the might. The example of great individuals is useful to lead us on the way, for nothing is more contagious for greatness than the power of a great example.
To spearhead a rebirth of our free society let us rededicate ourselves to a new covenant of redemption, which is a simple restatement of public morality. In the setting of our age of economic redistribution and social conflict it may be stated as follows:
No matter how the transfer state may victimize me, I shall seek no transfer payments, or accept any.
I shall seek no government grants, loans or other redistributive favors, or accept any.
I shall seek no government orders on behalf of redistribution, or accept any.
I shall seek no employment, or accept any, in the government apparatus of redistribution.
I shall seek no favors, or accept any, from the regulatory agencies of government.
I shall seek no protection from tariff barriers or any other institutional restrictions of trade and commerce.
I shall seek no services from, or lend support to collective institutions that are creatures of redistribution.
I shall seek no support from, or give support to associations that advocate or practice coercion and restraint.
We do not know whether our great republic will survive this century. If it can be saved, great men of conviction must lead the way—men who with religious fervor and unbounded courage resist all transfer temptations. The heroes of liberty are no less remarkable for what they suffer than for what they achieve.