Arrogant men & women 'of system'
Adam Smith is best known for his 1776 book familiarly known as “The Wealth of Nations.” I prefer the less-familiar full title: “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” It highlights an important, largely overlooked fact: The economic condition that has causes is wealth, not poverty.
Poverty is humankind's default mode. If we mindlessly do nothing, we'll be mired in it. Poverty requires no effort. But to escape poverty — to achieve wealth — requires creativity, reasoning, risk-taking and productive effort. Wealth, not poverty, has causes.
Even less well-known than the full title of Smith's 1776 book is that 17 years earlier, he published another, equally brilliant book: “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Perhaps its most profound passage is Smith's criticism of “the man of system”:
“The man of system … is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.”
In short, the “man of system” forgets that ordinary people are active, reasoning, creative individuals. They generally do not need government prodding to take actions that improve their lives. When they are so prodded, it is almost always to press them to take actions they would prefer to avoid. Conflict thus arises between ordinary people and those men (and women) “of system” who arrogantly fancy that they're entitled to order others about.
Consider today's brouhaha over repealing parts of ObamaCare, whose fans treat the typical American as a mindless, inert blob. If this American loses government health-insurance funding, he's believed to have no ability or wish to find private insurance. And private insurers are believed to be so uninterested in his business that they refuse to make him attractive offers. The “man of system,” therefore, concludes that all individuals removed from Medicaid rolls are doomed to live the rest of their days not only without health insurance, but without health care itself. It's a short step from there to the accusation that those who wish to scale back government's role in the health-care market are little better than homicidal maniacs.
Of course, real people are not mindless, inert chess pieces whose only principle of motion is government's guiding hand — or, more accurately, kicking foot. The awful irony, alas, is that when government treats people like witless chess pieces, too many of them do eventually lose the ability to think and act for themselves.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.