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Variations | The root of all evil

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ASK anyone about any controversial subject, and it is likely that the person’s political views (or lack of them) will determine his or her answer.

Considering that there are hundreds, thousands or millions (or more) of people in any jurisdiction, any policy discussion or debate could go on and on, and they do. Under a dictatorship, any such discussion starts and ends at the dictator’s say-so. And s/he alone decides. In a democracy, voters can freely decide — again and again. They can even change their minds — again and again.

Consider, for example, economics. Some talk about it like it’s a morality play that can be directed toward moral goals as defined by the “director.” Others believe that it involves basic arithmetic and uncertainties and complexities.

When he saw a campaign ad stating that Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang “knows how to build an economy that puts people first,” economics professor Don Boudreaux — obviously not a Democrat — was “astonished” by the ad’s claim. “What’s more astonishing — to the point of being frightening — is the apparent fact that many people find such an ad to be credible and appealing,” Boudreaux added. “Andrew Yang does not ‘know how to build an economy that puts people first’ (whatever it might mean to ‘put people first’; what else might be ‘first’ in an economy? Beetles? Oak trees? Mushrooms? …) No one knows how to ‘build an economy.’ No one can possibly know such a thing regardless of what in that economy is to be ‘put first.’ ”

Why? Because “economies aren’t built. Economies are emergent, spontaneous orders. Andrew Yang — or you name the hubris-saturated man or woman of system — literally knows no more about ‘building an economy’ than he knows about how to build a new species each member of which gets nutrition by eating rocks, lives for 10,000 years, and is impervious to the force of gravity.”

The related subject of money is another contentious issue — in fact, it has been a contentious issue since the 16th century (or even earlier). One school of thought — always refuted but never abandoned…like socialism — is called mercantilism. Among its key tenets:

1) Imports, bad; exports good.

2) As much as possible, money (or gold or silver) must stay in one’s country or jurisdiction so it can “circulate in the local economy.”

As early as 1776, however, Adam Smith had already pointed out what should have been obvious but was (is) not: it’s useless to have money if it can’t buy the things we need — and we can’t possibly make all the things we need.

In other words, the point of having money is to “get access to goods and services that we might not get otherwise.”

Says Sheldon Richman, an author and a contributor to “The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics”:

“In reality…there are no imports and exports. There is only what I make and what everyone else makes. Few people would want to live just on what they themselves could make. Frédéric Bastiat [1801-1850] pointed out that each of us daily uses products we couldn’t make in isolation in a thousand years…. ‘Every one of the members of society has consumed a million times more than he could have produced; yet no one has robbed anyone else.’ ”

In the NMI’s case, because its government, businesses and residents have money (generated by the local economy or the U.S. economy and provided by the U.S. government), they were able to build and/or acquire paved roads, airports, ports, a sanitary landfill, typhoon-proof buildings, concrete homes, a hospital, health centers, power plants, telecommunication facilities, heavy equipment, vehicles, computers, appliances, medicines, a variety of clothes, food and other consumer goods, etc., etc.

To be sure, others, including perfectly reasonable people, do not believe that all those things are “good.” They also think that the NMI would be better off if it returns to a subsistence economy. That is certainly a valid proposal, but to become reality it must secure the support of a substantial majority of voters…who may change their minds about it down the road.

As for money, my favorite quotation about it comes from Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”:

“So you think that money is the root of all evil? … Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?

“When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others. It is not the moochers or the looters who give value to money. Not an ocean of tears, not all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into the bread you will need to survive tomorrow. Those pieces of paper…are a token of honor — your claim upon the energy of the men who produce. Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle which is the root of money. Is this what you consider evil?

“To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will. Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders…. And when men live by trade — with reason, not force, as their final arbiter — it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability — and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. This is the code of existence whose tool and symbol is money. Is this what you consider evil?

“But money is only a tool…. Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: money will not give him a code of values, if he’s evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he’s evaded the choice of what to seek. Money will not buy intelligence for the fool, or admiration for the coward, or respect for the incompetent….

“[But] run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper’s bell of an approaching looter. So long as men live together on earth and need means to deal with one another — their only substitute, if they abandon money, is the muzzle of a gun.”

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