"Don't you want to do anything?"
THE SOCIALISTS use good psychology when they depict themselves as champions of political "initiative" and "action." They know that both attributes still demand the respect and admiration of decent people. Therefore, in the name of action and progress these self-styled activists denounce the friends of freedom and individual enterprise for then "negative" attitudes and "do-nothing" policies. "Don't you want to do anything?" is a common retort that aims to stymie all objections.
These arguments are wholly fallacious. Their premises must be rejected and their conclusions corrected. In reality the call for action is a manifestation of individual lethargy and inertness. It is tantamount to a call for government action rather than individual initiative.
The advocate of foreign aid who depicts in dark colors the misery and suffering in foreign countries does not mean to act himself when he demands action and initiative in this field of social endeavor. He does not mean to send CARE packages to starving Asians and Africans. And he does not plan to invest his savings in the socialized economies of India or the Congo. He probably knows rather well that his investments would soon be consumed, squandered, and confiscated by governments that are hostile to capital investments. And yet, he calls on his government to waste billions of dollars of the taxpayers' money.
The advocate of more abundant and better housing does not mean to use his own funds to provide low-rent housing. He, himself, does not want to act; he calls on the government for action. It is the government whose initiative and action he would like to employ and the people's tax money he proposes to spend. He, himself, probably is a tenant complaining about high rentals but shunning the tasks and responsibilities of house ownership. He is probably aware that the returns on apartment house investments are mostly meager and always jeopardized by rising taxes and government controls. Therefore, he prefers safer investments with less worry to him. And yet, for better housing conditions he clamors for government action and spending of tax money.
Most advocates of "better education" are clamoring for more state and federal aid to education. They are convinced that better education depends on additional spending of government funds. They want new school buildings, more classrooms, modern equipment, and transportation, and, above all, higher teacher salaries. Since individual effort seems so minute in their grandiose schemes of spending, they fall on the government as the bountiful source of limitless funds.
The apostle of rapid economic growth does not advocate personal initiative and action. He does not mean to offer his own effort and thrift toward economic growth. It takes more than $15,000 in savings to create an additional job. Even more savings are needed if the job is to be more productive with higher wages and better working conditions. In his personal life the growth apostle probably is spending next month's income on consumption, relying mainly on charge accounts and installment loans. He, himself, does not save the capital that is needed for economic growth. His call for initiative and action is merely a call for government expenditures financed with the people's money or through inflation.
This is why the quest for "initiative" and "action" must be seen as a quest for government action. When seen in proper perspective, the question, "Don't you want to do anything?" actually means "Don't you want the government to spend the people's money on foreign aid, housing, education, economic growth, and so forth?" It means in many cases "Don't you want socialism?"
This analysis clearly reveals why the friend of freedom and individual enterprise is often denounced for being "merely negative." The terms "positive" and "negative" are relative to given points of orientation. Whoever opposes socialism and all its encroachments on individual initiative and action is "negative" in the eyes of socialists. But he is unwaveringly 'positive" when freedom is the criterion of orientation, because freedom is his positive concern. His life is filled with initiative and action.
Hans F. Sennholz
This article first appeared in Christian Economics; February 7, 1961.