Explore Freedom

Explore Freedom » Ideas on Liberty in the Strangest Places

FFF Articles

Ideas on Liberty in the Strangest Places


Now and then something happens that makes you wonder if freedom’s revolution isn’t further along than we might think. Ideas about liberty can pop up in the strangest places. Here are some examples.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now ACORN calls itself the “largest low- and moderate-income membership organization in the country.” As an outgrowth of the National Welfare Rights Organization, it is your typical left-wing “antipoverty” group. It would expand government in many directions to make incomes more “equitable.” Briefly put, it is not the kind of organization from which to expect an understanding of the market process.

Yet, ACORN recently sued the state of California, complaining that the minimum-wage law there violates its First Amendment right to engage in political advocacy. Curious, but true. The suit argues that because of the minimum wage, ACORN is “forced to hire fewer workers” than it would like. That’s obvious. If you have to pay at least $4.25 an hour, you can hire fewer workers than if you are permitted to pay only $3.25.

What’s so remarkable is that it is ACORN a left-wing organization making this argument. And ACORN went further. Its suit also argued that if its employees make $4.25 an hour, they “will be less sympathetic with ACORN’s low- and moderate-income constituency and will therefore be less effective advocates.” In other words, the law precludes ACORN from having the kind of employees it wishes to have.

Sad to say, the California courts did not accept ACORN’s arguments. It called the First Amendment issue an “absurdity.” It also noted the irony of “an advocate for the poor seeking to justify starvation wages.” By that, of course, the judge showed quite a bit more ignorance than the people at ACORN. If the organization can’t hire a person at $4.25, the alternative wage is zero, which is closer to a starvation wage than the amount ACORN would have paid.

It is encouraging that ACORN is finally catching on to the notion that justice does not lie in the direction of government-set wages. That’s progress. The newspaper article carrying the account didn’t say so, but I have a feeling ACORN’s directors would not accept their own arguments had they come from the owner of a business.

Yet, the same arguments fully apply. As the Austrian school of economics teaches, prices which include wages are carriers of information. They are a means of communication. Indeed, they are points of persuasion and argument. Thus, when the government interferes with the price system, such as by decreeing maximum prices or minimum wages, it interferes with a vital form of expression. That interference violates the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, which has long been interpreted to encompass expression in general. If topless dancing is protected by the First Amendment, then so is free pricing. (It goes without saying that the First Amendment merely codified the natural right to control one’s own person and resources with respect to expression.)

ACORN made a point of its role as a political advocate, but that is immaterial. The First Amendment (not to mention natural rights) does not protect only political advocacy. It protects all speech. The minimum-wage law violates the rights of business people fully as much as it violates the rights of ACORN’s directors. Business people too are prohibited from hiring all the people and the kinds of people they’d like to hire. Kinds of people? Yes. An entrepreneur may often find that two or three unskilled workers can do the job of one skilled worker. At the free-market wage, it may also be more economical to hire the unskilled workers. What the minimum-wage law does is assure that it is not more economical to do so. In those circumstances, the entrepreneur will hire the skilled worker and leave the unskilled unemployed. In fact, that’s why we have a minimum-wage law.

This is why one of the biggest defenders of the law and all proposals to increase the minimum is the AFL-CIO. No one in that legally protected labor cartel makes anything near the minimum wage, but the cartel defends it nonetheless. Why? Because the law protects its members by pricing their unskilled competitors out of the market. So much for that piece of humanitarian legislation. When ACORN realizes that, we’ll really see progress.

At least ACORN has come a lot farther than Bill Clinton and Labor Secretary Robert Reich. They want to keep raising the minimum wage and have grasped onto one widely discredited study to make their case. That study purported to show that when New Jersey raised its minimum wage, jobs were not lost in the fast-food industry. Later research showed that the study was methodologically flawed. Surprised? Does anyone really think the law of demand doesn’t apply in New Jersey? That Clinton and Reich tout this study is another case of statists not knowing the difference between thinking and wishful thinking.

The next example of libertarian ideas insinuating themselves in the strangest places comes from Montgomery County, Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C. You have to understand something about Montgomery County. Just about everyone who lives there is a federal, state, or local bureaucrat. A candidate calling for even the smallest reduction in government would have the same chance of winning an election there as Thomas Jefferson namely, none. It is nothing less than a statist’s model of enlightened local government. Its charter was written by the progressivist Brookings Institution in 1941. The Washington Post said the county resembles an experiment in the perfectibility of government. That the following story takes place in Montgomery County, then, is highly remarkable.

County executive Douglas Duncan has as Dave Barry would say, I’m not making this up-ordered the word “government” removed from the county’s letterhead, calling cards, and official automobiles. “Government Centers” will henceforth be called “Services Centers.” Why this literal cut in “government”? Duncan says the word is arrogant and off-putting. “It just seemed to me to be too officious,” he explained. “It didn’t represent the image of public service. It was more, ‘We’re in charge, and you’ll do whatever we say.'”

Savor that for a moment: when the bureaucrat-residents of Montgomery County hear the word government they think of some heavy-handed thug saying: “We’re in charge, and you’ll do whatever we say.” I guess it takes one to know one. But if those residents think that, what’s going on everywhere else? Will this be the start of a trend? We know already that federal agents, such as forest rangers, are not exactly welcome in many western states. Some fear for their safety. Government is becoming anathema. It reminds me of those great stories from colonial times when smugglers were heroes and customs officials were run out of town on a rail. Are we headed that way again?

If the very word “government” is poison, we just may be. After Waco and Ruby Ridge, plus countless other transgressions, we shouldn’t be surprised. Let’s remember an astute observation from Michael Kinsley (who doesn’t make that many astute observations): The scandal about government is not the illegal things it does, but rather the legal things.

On the county’s decision to delete “government” from the signs, a pollster said, presumably without irony: “It’s good government to take out this word that everyone thinks has a negative connotation.” This prompts the thought that changing the word doesn’t change the thing. No policies are being eliminated. People still must surrender their money and obey regulations. No matter what they call it, the message is still: “We’re in charge and you’ll do whatever we say.”

The big question is, how long will it take the people to realize that?

  • Categories
  • This post was written by:

    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.