Politics, as a practice, always has been the competition of men and women for power. Some may seek power to do good, others because it is personally gratifying, self-esteeming, and rewarding. But many embark upon politics to “redistribute” income, wealth, and privilege from one social group to another. Their thinking is guided by notions of social concern and economic conflict.
Conflict doctrines are much older than the teaching of economic harmony. 17th and 18th century economic thought, commonly called Mercantilism, fostered much national conflict and led to numerous wars in Europe and the Americas. 18th and 19th century Classical economists perceiving basic harmony of interests in freedom sought to pacify the world. Adam Smith wrote of a great “propensity to truck and barter” which, under competition, would lead to division of labor and peaceful cooperation. But later critics of nationalistic and socialistic persuasion were convinced that economic interests do not match, that private capitalists are apt to be exploiters and spoilers. The most influential economist of our age, John Maynard Keynes, recommended large-scale government economic planning that would stimulate the market economy and promote employment. Many Americans have been enamored with such stimulation notions ever since.
Since the 1930s Democratic and Republican administrations have taken government economic planning far beyond the Keynesian proposal. They added countless social and economic laws to benefit the mass of working people who now like to ask: “What have you done for us lately?” And they may want to know: “What will you do for us in the coming years? What is your agenda?” But government can only dole out what it extracts from taxpayers, borrows from investors, or fleeces from inflation victims; it has no treasure-troves other than the income and wealth of its subjects. Yet, most politicians –- always looking over their shoulders to see if their supporters and voters are still there -- never tire of promising according to the voters’ hopes. Their promises tend to divide the country into beneficiaries who hope to reap and the victims who are forced to settle.
Social legislation and regulation were born from political strife, are enjoying a full and varied life and tend to corrupt and weaken democratic institutions. Americans don’t like to be reminded that social legislation was the invention of a German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. During the 1880s he devised and introduced a complex system of social security consisting of compulsory accident insurance, sickness insurance, and old age pensions in order to entreat and coax working people away from his political opposition. He was eminently successful; the workers came to believe in their rights to benefits by law and decree. German parliamentary procedure soon became an endless brawl about social benefits and their ways of payment. Defeated and impoverished in World War I, Germany faced the threat of civil war, with uprisings in Hamburg, Saxony and Thuringia. The army ruled the land throughout a state of emergency from October 1923 to February 1924. When, a few years later, the Great Depression descended on Germany and countless labor laws and regulations strangled the economy and prevented labor markets from adjusting, the rate of unemployment soared to 30 percent. In deep depression and political disarray Adolf Hitler came to power.
Surely, no one is suggesting that the United States is following in the footsteps of Nazi Germany. But this writer is convinced that the very ideological forces that destroyed old Germany are gnawing at the foundations of American society. They are visible in the race riots that occasionally erupt in American cities. In 1965, a residential section of south central Los Angeles, called Watts, was the cite of six days of race riots that claimed 34 lives. Riots again erupted in 1992, causing the death of 58 people and approximately $1 billion in property damage. If serious economic difficulties were to descend on the United States with unemployment rising to Great Depression levels, we may see more burning cities and bloody riots. Economic conflict doctrines permeate all levels of information and education.
Mass media are the wholesalers and retailers of public opinion. Echoing and reinforcing public thinking or even accentuating it, they love controversies and confrontations. Tales of exploitation and unemployment excite readers and listeners more than stories of steady improvements in working conditions. Ugly encounter carries further than peaceful cooperation. In an election year, ambitious politicians ever eager to garner votes busily fan the conflict. Speaking to African-Americans, for instance, they may call for new policies that spend more money on early childhood and other educational programs than on sending people to prison. They may even suggest that there are more black Americans in prison than in college, which, whether true or false, surely supports and refines the conflict doctrine and points the way to more riots to come.
Social peace, like war, begins in the minds of men and propagates in classrooms and the media. It is born of individual freedom and the unhampered private property order. It lives in free societies that safeguard the lives and respect the rights of their citizens. It dies when envy supplants morality and spurious doctrines cause men to prey on each other.