Freedom in Mind

Chapter 7
The Three-legged Rat Race

If you throw a beach bash, don't leave out the three-legged race. Pairs bind a right leg and a left leg together, and race as three-legged teams. Neither gets left behind, but forward progress is hilariously hard.

A grimmer three-legged race is called "Industrial Policy." The idea is to tie slow-growth companies to fast-growth companies, so the slow ones cannot get left behind, and the fast ones cannot run away with the race. The hobble is called "anti-trust". Companies that manage by hook or crook to escape hobbles are called "monopolies".

This use of "monopoly" is an example of forming a concept without objective similarity. If you compare the post office, the local phone company, the local cable company, the local garbage company, and other utilities, what they have in common is coercion. They are all government-enforced monopolies. Competing companies are stopped by force.

Market dominating companies like Standard Oil, IBM, and Microsoft have something else in common: productivity. Forcing them into the same concept with coercive monopolies is a way of equating production with coercion. It turns concept formation, and so thinking, into a three-legged race. By tying together production and coercion, it hobbles the process of thought which could show the connection between production and freedom.

Imagine a two man economy operating under coercion. We are both forced to produce, but when I produce, the benefit goes to you. When you produce, the benefit goes to me. We are true altruists, mutually enslaved. A way to increase my production occurs to me. It would not benefit me to put it into practice; it would benefit you. So I mull it over, and in the end forget about it. At the same time, you find your production slowing from lack of maintenance. You mull over who that really hurts, and stop worrying about it.

Not only are we running a three-legged race, we are trying to lose.

This is the state of affairs people are recommending when they say, "Without regulation, it's too much of a rat race! We must temper the law of the jungle! We must level the playing field! We must soak the rich to help the poor. We must rein in the productive giants before they trample us." That's Industrial Policy: figuring out how to slow progress down without quite stopping it.

The anti-trust argument is never stated simply, because then its absurdity shows. Stated simply, it is: "In order to increase prosperity, we must decrease production."

Behind this mania for the three-legged rat race there is a moral imperative: while slavery is morally forbidden, slave labor is morally required. To see this moral imperative at work, examine your own case.

If you started the year by working entirely to pay your taxes for the year, then, according to the Tax Foundation, you would have your tax bill paid in May. That is, the government would own your working time during January, February, March, April, and into May. That's a lot of your time. Is it justified?

If we suppose that during January you are working for the police and the military, well, you need rights defended, and rights aren't defended without effort. If we suppose that during February, you are working for the public schools, well, children have a right to education, don't they? Then perhaps in March you are working for the poor, who have a right to be helped. That leaves April for paying government bureaucrats, who insist on big offices and long limousines.

The real thing behind each penny of government spending is the labor of those who pay. If the payment is freely made, then the labor is freely done. If the payment is coerced, then the labor is coerced. It is slave labor.

Do government officials really think that they own your working time from January to May? It's easy to tell by listening to Congress talk about tax cuts. "Can we afford to give such a big cut?" they ask. "Wouldn't this money be better spent paying off the public debt, or bolstering Social Security?"

They are discussing how to use your time. They take your slave labor so perfectly for granted that they do not think to conceal it.

Think of the vacation trip you wanted to take, but could not quite afford. Compare the cost of the trip to your tax bill. If you freely chose to pay the tax instead of taking the trip, then that time was your own. If you were coerced into paying the tax instead of taking the trip, then that time was stolen from you. If the money you earn by working is not paid to you, but to others, then your work is slave labor.

If somebody's need is a moral claim on your labor, then you do not have a moral right to all your time—only June through December. To say that fulfilling the needs of others is a moral imperative is to say that slave labor is a moral imperative. That's the paradox: slavery is bad, but slave labor is good.

Most people never resolve this paradox. They decide that one must not go to extremes. Of course slavery is bad, but a little forced labor doesn't hurt. After all, we've all gone to church, or entertained the boss, or visited a nasty relative, in spite of not wanting to. We own ourselves, but not all the time.

Alas, owning June through December is not guaranteed. If you settle for that, what if the needs of others require June? Will you settle for owning only July through December? What about August through December? What about just December?

Every hour without coercion is an hour owned by you—a part of your own life. Every hour of slave labor is an hour taken from your life by force. When you donate time to others, you are spending your own time as you choose. When others coerce you, they are spending your time as they choose.

If you have a right to your life, you have a right to your time. In a free society, you could choose to work for the bureaucrat's limousine, or your own limousine. You could choose to give time to the poor, or to your bereaved neighbor's child, or to your own project. In a coercive society, such choices are not yours. That time is owned by others.

Life is full of those moments stolen from you. There's the salesman on the phone and the peddler at the door. There's the pushy neighbor and the dawdling clerk. There's the TV show that promises pleasure and delivers pap. You learn ways to defend yourself.

Except from physical force. If you don't answer the doorbell, and the door is broken open, then that's not a peddler. Call the police—unless it is the police.

In a free country, the government does not defend you from the busybodies or the peddlers who waste your time. It defends you from the use of physical force to steal your time. It refrains from stealing your time for its own benefit. It does not take things from you, or give things to you.

The paradox of thinking slavery bad but slave labor good arises from the wish to have government give us things. To give me something, the government must take it from you. It puts you to work for me. As soon as I give up the wish to have the government put you to work for me, the paradox vanishes. I have decided that slavery is bad, and therefore, slave labor is bad.

Volumes of convoluted theorizing have been written to justify letting the government put you to work for me. I am poor, so you owe me the time. I am unlucky, so you owe me the time. I've been foolish, so you owe me the time. My ancestors were slaves, so you owe me the time. I am an artist, so you owe me the time. I was born defective, so you owe me the time.

In the absence of coercion, those who want to give time to others would choose what others and how much time. Theirs would not be slave labor, but a labor of love. In a coercive society, love is stifled by duty. There is a fear that all the people who need part of your time would not get it freely, so slave labor is necessary. The government considers your time at its disposal.

The gist of freedom is that all of your time is at your own disposal. Nobody steals your time.

What happens if you decide not to go to extremes? What if, when the government puts you to work for me, and somebody else to work for you, you come out ahead? What about the advantages of a close-knit community in which everybody must work for everybody else, so nobody gets left behind? Why not have a friendly three-legged rat race now and then?

There are those who hate effort. For them, all labor is reluctant. Since they must do something to stay alive, they feel forced to work. They experience all labor as slave labor. They want to do nothing, so doing something is slaving. They are delighted if the government makes you work for them. If the government makes them work for you, well, all work is slaving, so what the hell. They concentrate on the advantages of a three-legged rat race for the rat.

There are those who love life, and know that life consists of doing things. They see that wealth gives them the wherewithal to do more things. They love to produce, and love seeing their production benefit more and more people. They are astonished if the trust-busters suddenly appear and accuse them of going to extremes. Three-legged racing appears to them as a boring game you have to play while shackled to a rat.

A community that wants to avoid extremes, and have just a moderate amount of slave labor, will be drained by the lazy rats, and have no valid arguments to keep the best producers around. It will find itself drifting toward the least wanted extreme of all: poverty. The final choice will be to get poor, or get out of the way.

It seems obvious: let people create wealth. Never say, "We will let you create wealth if you want, but not too much, and not too fast, and not without paying for the privilege." Why would anybody ever think of wealth creation as a crime?

Because all property is theft. An influential three-legged thinker said so. Instead of identifying the differences between making and taking, people put them together in a mental sack, and drag them around in tandem. When that becomes a habit, it stops all thinking. Thinking is telling the difference and finding relationships. To think, you must compare and analyze.

Compare a block of marble to a marble statue by Michelangelo. The plain marble block is worth something. The block some of which has been removed by Michelangelo is worth a million times more. Would you rather own the unspoiled marble, or the statue? Which one is wealth? From whom was it stolen?

When property was first called theft, it was easier to be fooled. In the age of computers, it's hard to keep up such foolery. Computers make it obvious that when you do the same things, but do them more efficiently, everybody is better off. A three-legged thinker says, "Computers are evil, because I lost my job when they put in a computer." If you equate getting hired with getting what's owed you, then that sounds right. If you don't, then that sounds like, "The computer did my work twice as fast, which breaks the rules of the three-legged rat race."

To see that wealth is created, not stolen, make something. Start with raw material worth little, and make something worth more. You don't have to guess. You can tell directly whether or not you are better off or worse off, and whether you stole that property, or created it.

Animals generally live by foraging. That is, they take things. Humans generally live by producing. They make things. If food grows short, animals die; humans plant more seeds. Animals live like they did a million years ago. Humans live a million times better. Making things has turned out a lot better than taking things.

A mind that equates property with theft equates producing with foraging, making with taking, wealth with loot. Since thinking is blocked, wealth seems not created but obtained. Why the expropriated poor now live better than the richest kings of old is a mystery solvable only by thinking.

There are two ways of coming in first in a race: win, or tie the other guy's legs together. The trouble is, making it a three-legged race is making it not a race at all, but a sham. If you feel you have no chance of winning, then the sham is better than the race. But there is the nagging notion that the effort applied to the sham could be applied to the race. Instead of making the other guy run slower, you could make yourself run faster.

When you think about it that way, you can see the motive behind the three-legged rat race: "I'll never make it on my own. Everybody is better. I've got to get a gimmick. I must have an edge. It will never be hook, so it has to be crook."

That three-legged thought equates freedom with license. Freedom is the absence of coercion. License is permission to coerce. Freedom and force are stuffed into a mental sack, and then the sack is discussed instead of the contradiction. For example: "You can't be free if you go to extremes. Too much freedom for you would come at my expense. Freedom cannot mean your freedom to win over me. Everything has to be kept within bounds."

But freedom is not the absence of self-defense. It is the absence of initiation of force. To be free is to be free of coercion. It is not to be free of reality. The three-legged rat race is an attempt to fake reality by providing fake security by means of fake safeguards against phony dangers. To sustain the attempt, you have to substitute fake freedom for the real thing, and call real slave labor by a fake name. You end up confused: "Why is everything so complicated? Why can't things be simple and straightforward?"

They can, if you decide to think.

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