Monday, December 29, 2014

Freeloaders, Freebooters, Work and Freedom

According to Nicholas Wade in The Faith Instinct, "Nothing is more corrosive to a group's cohesion than free riders." He is talking about the freeloaders that show up when the goodies are being handed out but are mysteriously absent when there is work to be done.

So all we need to do it to get the government to put the shirkers to work.

Would that were all it took. The problem is that every government relies on a group of freeloaders to serve as its supporters. They could be the temple priests of early Mesopotamian civilization. They could be the great land barons of high feudalism. They could be the patronage appointees of 19th century governments in the US. And every government relies on the soldiers that, while eating their heads off most of the time, are the men that stand ready to defend the borders against the enemy.

Today, of course, the freeloaders are the beneficiaries of government entitlement programs and corporate subsidies. Don't ever mess with their benefits, Mr. Politician, or you'll find yourself defeated at the next election.

In fact every government must keep its supporters happy; otherwise it is not long for this world. So governments are willing to bankrupt the territory they govern rather than cut back on the benefits going to their supporters.

Longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer has an interesting view of this question. In "The Readiness to Work," an essay in The Ordeal of Change, he observes that down the ages work has traditionally been sneered at. It was "viewed as a curse, a mark of bondage, or, at best, a necessary evil." But not in the modern Occident. In the west, the assumption is that people want to work, and the government is not long for this world that fails to provide job opportunities for all that desire them.

In fact, Hoffer writes, a society has two choices. It can deputize the government to set people to work; that is the age-old solution. Or it can deputize the people to find work for themselves; that is the modern approach. Either solution is a heavy burden. In the subordination of a top-down society the worker is stigmatized with the "mark of bondage;" in the freedom of the individualist society the worker is burdened with the responsibility "to prove his worth," and that means, for the average man or woman without exceptional "capacities and talents," merely "keeping busy."

You can see the problem with government. The more that it delivers benefits to its supporters the more it must compel the people to work, for someone must create the wealth that the government distributes to its supporters. We know the end point of this philosophy; it is the 20th century totalitarian state, where everyone is a beneficiary of social justice and everyone is a slave that is put to work under the command of the overseers. The problem with this system is illuminated by the Soviet era Russian joke: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us!"

If government leads to the dead end of universal freeloading and slavery, then, as Lenin said, "What is to be done?"

The answer is: religion. People have to believe in giving rather than receiving; they have to fear divine judgement for their sins. They must be filled with a faith in themselves as individually responsible to their families, their society, their God for their lives.

Government can't do this, for the difference between a robber band and a government is, as St. Augustine wrote, the addition of impunity. Corporations can't do it, because they are strategic actors in pursuit of profit. What it takes is something similar to the "Protestant Ethic" that Max Weber discovered in the "Spirit of Capitalism."

We are talking about a moral/cultural thing that infuses the culture, that sets the taken-for-granted rules by which politicians canvass for votes and CEOs advertise for customers.

That's why people like me say that we need a Greater Separation of Powers to keep the moralists and the politicians from getting together, as in socialism and "progressivism," and the politicians and the capitalists from getting together, as in crony capitalism.

It probably means that we all agree, by faith, that we must and will care for the poor ourselves, individually, and not deputize the responsibility to government.

And as to what would happen if the moralists and the capitalists ever got together, we can only shudder.

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