David R. Henderson  

John Allison's Nice Summary

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As a financial contributor to the Cato Institute, I get a bimonthly memorandum from the president and CEO of Cato, John A. Allison. In the latest one, he leads off with two paragraphs that sum up, beautifully succinctly, so much that is wrong with government policy. He writes:

I recently read an article in the Washington Times about a classic case of crony statism. The article concerned Coca-Cola's lobbying effort to ensure that soft drinks remain a qualified purchase under the food stamp program. Approximately $4 billion of the annual $80 billion food stamp program goes to buy soft drinks. Since the Democrats are enthused abut the growth rate of food stamps and the Republicans enjoy the support of big business, the irrationality continues.
Of course, soft drinks are not the worst use of food stamps. At the independent grocery store near where I live in downtown D.C., there is an active market to buy and sell food stamps. Apparently some food stamp recipients sell their stamps to get money to buy illegal drugs. Of course, we then arrest them for using drugs. After they have been imprisoned, they cannot get a job and need welfare and food stamps--a great plan. When government attempts to fill the role better served by private, voluntary institutions (in this case, charity), the outcome is never good.

In two short paragraphs, he takes on the drug war, forced transfers of income, paternalism, and cronyism.

There's one main thing I disagree with in the above: his use of one word that very many people in America misuse. If you want to know which word, read this.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Brianna writes:

That's not really fair, getting annoyed at him over something as simple as the use of the word "we." Even in a world where we understand that the individual comes first, there is still such a thing as a society, and a need for a way to refer to the actions of that society in concert. Just because forests are composed of trees, doesn't mean that the very concept of a forest is invalid.

CC writes:

Funny... I thought you were going to complain about "enthused".

Ken B writes:

I think there is a subtle distinction between the way Allison uses that pronoun and David's complaint about about how many of us (sic) use it. He is using it in a way that accepts not evades responsibility for the foolish policies, and so in a way calculated to be persuasive, and to appeal to the conscience of his readers.

@DRH: What did you make of "not in my name" a few years ago?

Ken B writes:

To follow up on Brianna's comment. This is one of the areas where I profoundly disagree with David. I believe I am nothing apart from my cells, and David is nothing apart from his. But I think David and Ken B exist too. It's not as simple as most libertarians would have it. Societies and cultures are not to people as I am to my cells, but societies as emergent entities do matter.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brianna,
I wasn't annoyed at him. Also, I don't think the drug war is an example of society acting in concert.

Tom West writes:

The post was okay, but your "we" essay I found really thought-provoking. I strongly appreciate your efforts to get people to think of everyone as individuals.

However, I can't help thinking that there's no society that has actually been founded and survived without that artificial "we" used to bind disparate individuals into a single entity.

Most countries in the West are fortunate in not having to worry about an existential threat from without. But I do wonder whether ignoring "we" is a luxury that only those not under threat can afford.

That said, I'm all in favor of affording that particular luxury while we can :-).

Right, David. And in the comments I see another word that needs to be cleared up. "Society" has a different meaning than "state", in my language at least. But leftists muddle the two.

Shayne Cook writes:

David R. Henderson:

After I read the last paragraph of your post, and before I read your antiwar.com article, I guessed that the misused word you had in mind was going to be "need". I rather suspect "need" is the most misused word in the American English vernacular, but "we" is a close second.

And when combined, "we need ..." is the most overused, misleading and damaging phrase in the American English vernacular.

Greg G writes:

Great point about "selective collectivism" David. Ironically, this is something libertarians also often indulge in when they make sweeping generalizations about "politicians," "leftists," "bureaucrats" etc. But if "society" is just a collection of individuals then "government" must also be just a collection of individuals.

To view the individual as "simply a cell in some part of the organism" is indeed a totalitarian way of thinking. But the word "simply" is doing a lot of work there.

It makes more sense to think of people both as unique individuals with rights that must be respected and also as part of an emergent order that creates societies, governments and nations that have properties that go well beyond what is found in any individual.

Philo writes:

“I don't think the drug war is an example of society acting in concert.” It certainly wouldn’t be, if “acting in concert” required unanimous intent; but that’s too strict a standard. The drug war is an example of a policy of *my* government, so I am implicated, even if unwillingly. I shouldn’t feel guilty about it, since there is nothing I could do to alter the policy. Still, I am part of the organized group that is carrying it out, and so are you: *we* are doing it, alas!

David Henderson Author Profile Page writes:

The drug war is an example of a policy of *my* government, so I am implicated, even if unwillingly. I shouldn’t feel guilty about it, since there is nothing I could do to alter the policy. Still, I am part of the organized group that is carrying it out, and so are you: *we* are doing it, alas!

So it would follow that every American in prison because of the drug war is also part of the "we" doing it, right?

Ken B writes:

David, I assume you are quoting Philo. If so, good point. However I don't think it addresses my point about the inclusive and inculpatory aspect of choosing we not they in criticizing a policy.

Roger McKinney writes:

If the use of "we" is annoying, how about the use of "crony" instead of corruption. Socialists invented the term "crony capitalism" to discredit capitalism and to obfuscate. We shouldn't assist them. Call corruption what it is. We are only slightly less corrupt than the corrupt third world banana republics we like to laugh at.

Warren Gibson writes:

I first thought of "statism" which most people wouldn't know how to pronounce, much less define.

"We" in this context is OK if taken with a bit of irony, i.e. referring to the actions of the agents that supposedly represent all of us.

David K. writes:

I think the use of the word "irrational" is the more disagreeable word in the two paragraphs. Perhaps "foolish" is a better description, but it doesn't seem irrational for Coca Cola to lobby to boost its sales, food stamp recipients to want subsidization and more consumer choice, and for politicians to accrue votes/donations as a result of appearing to care for the poor.

Lee Waaks writes:

Mr. Henderson,

You were correct to single out the word "we" in Mr. Allison's post (excellent essay on Antiwar.com, by the way!). However, you should have singled out the word "irrational" as well. That word is overused and abused. No economic actor is irrational; we all have rational goals/preferences. Unfortunately, too many pursue goals/preferences that result in impositions upon others. This behavior is not irrational, just abusive. See the _Myth of the Closed Mind_ (Ray Percival) for a more detailed exposition of human rationality.

Jake writes:

Prof. Henderson, your Who is 'We'? essay is terrific. Thanks for the link!

A6 writes:

Brianna writes:

"That's not really fair, getting annoyed at him over something as simple as the use of the word 'we.' Even in a world where we understand that the individual comes first, there is still such a thing as a society, and a need for a way to refer to the actions of that society in concert."

Who is this "we" who understands that the individual comes first?

guthrie writes:

I second Jake.

My favorite concepts (cobbled together):
"The great tragedy of collectivism, the organic view of society, is that it makes people heartless – they become incapable of seeing the real losses and hurts inflicted on innocent people because they stop seeing them as individuals… [c]ollectivism is the ugliest ideology in the world. It has been directly responsible for well over 100 million deaths in the 20th century."

Ken B, if your 'emergent entities' concept logically concludes a collectivist approach to governance, then I would suggest there is little difference between your conception and those which have scourged humanity for the last 100+ years. What might be the difference?

Ken B writes:

guthrie:

Ken B, if your 'emergent entities' concept logically concludes a collectivist approach to governance, then I would suggest there is little difference between your conception and those which have scourged humanity for the last 100+ years. What might be the difference?

Governance is logically "collective" isn't it? If I am the only person I don't need much governance. But the need for governance does not even logically imply the need for government, much less the need for Stalin. So stating a plain fact really does not make a nazi communist collectivst guthrie.

An interesting example is language. If I shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre then I do no harm if I live in far off Panopsopis, where the syllable "fire" connotes approval. They use "bravo" to warn of flames. Please explain that without reference to cultural concepts.

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