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Does the Rest of Society Care if You Work?

Summary:
So if you followed my orders, you have already listened to my critique of Paul Krugman, when he claims that the rest of society doesn’t benefit if rich people work more. (Krugman says that free-market economists like to claim that workers get paid their marginal product, so–he concludes–they can’t then turn around and say marginal income tax cuts will shower benefits on society at large.) Well, one of my economist friends reminded me of the below passage from David Friedman’s classic book, The Machinery of Freedom. Check it out: The media provide a striking example of the difference between the effects of public and private property, but it is an example that shows only part of the disadvantage of public property. For the ‘public’ not only has the power to

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So if you followed my orders, you have already listened to my critique of Paul Krugman, when he claims that the rest of society doesn’t benefit if rich people work more. (Krugman says that free-market economists like to claim that workers get paid their marginal product, so–he concludes–they can’t then turn around and say marginal income tax cuts will shower benefits on society at large.)

Well, one of my economist friends reminded me of the below passage from David Friedman’s classic book, The Machinery of Freedom. Check it out:

The media provide a striking example of the difference between the effects of public and private property, but it is an example that shows only part of the disadvantage of public property. For the ‘public’ not only has the power to prevent individuals from doing what they wish with their own lives, it has a positive incentive to exercise that power. If property is public, I, by using some of that property, decrease the amount available for you to use. If you disapprove of what I use it for, then, from your standpoint, I am wasting valuable resources that are needed for other and more important purposes—the ones you approve of. Under private property, what I waste belongs to me. You may, in the abstract, disapprove of my using my property wastefully, but you have no incentive to go to any trouble to stop me. Even if I do not ‘waste’ my property, you will never get your hands on it. It will merely be used for another of my purposes.

This applies not only to wasting resources already produced, but to wasting my most valuable property, my own time and energy. In a private-property society, if I work hard, the main effect is that I am richer. If I choose to work only ten hours a week and to live on a correspondingly low income, I am the one who pays the cost. Under institutions of public property, I, by refusing to produce as much as I might, decrease the total wealth available to the society. Another member of that society can claim, correctly, that my laziness sabotages society’s goals, that I am taking food from the mouths of hungry children.

Consider hippies. Our private-property institutions serve them just as they do anyone else. Waterpipes and tie-dyed shirts are produced, underground papers and copies of Steal This Book are printed, all on the open market. Drugs are provided on the black market. No capitalist takes the position that being unselfish and unproductive is evil and therefore that capital should not be invested in producing things for such people; or, if one does, someone else invests the capital and makes the profit.

It is the government that is the enemy: police arrest ‘vagrants’; public schools insist on haircuts for longhairs; state and federal governments engage in a massive program to prevent the import and sale of drugs. Like radio and television censorship, this is partly the imposition of the morals of the majority on the minority. But part of the persecution comes from the recognition that people who choose to be poor contribute less to the common ends. Hippies don’t pay much in taxes. Occasionally this point is made explicit: drug addiction is bad because the addict does not ‘carry his share of the load’. If we are all addicts, the society will collapse. Who will pay taxes? Who will fight off foreign enemies?

Do you see the potential problem here? Let me spell it out.

(A) Years ago, when I read David Friedman’s book, I’m pretty sure I gave him a mental high-five when he argued, “In a market economy, everybody keeps what he produces, so nobody else feels threatened by a person’s work effort. So it fosters a live and let live approach.”

(B) Last week, when Krugman argued that the rest of society doesn’t care if rich people work more, I went ballistic.

Am I just a hypocrite or can we reconcile this?

Robert Murphy
Christian, Austrian economist, and libertarian theorist. Research Prof at Texas Tech and author of *Choice*. Paul Krugman's worst nightmare.

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