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Young People Aren’t Skeptical Enough!


NEARLY EVRYONE seems to agree on one thing: young people are tragically skeptical about politics and reluctant to participate. Various reasons are posited for this state of affairs. Republicans say it is because the Clinton administration has been dishonest the last eight years, and they called for a change at the polls. The Democrats, along with Sen. John McCain and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, blame big money in politics and call for campaign-finance reform.

But the problem is not that young people are too skeptical about politics. It is that they arent nearly skeptical enough!

In other words, if young people think that whats wrong with politics can be fixed by finding honest candidates or by banning soft money, they are a lot more naive than is commonly thought. The defect of politics runs much deeper than that.

Consider this question: Except for a relatively few criminals in society, does anyone think he has the right to help himself to other peoples belongings? (Its unlikely that criminals actually think they have a moral right to the property of others.) Is it okay for you to take your neighbors money without his permission because you believe you can use it better than he can?

Of course not. Most of us would never think of doing such a thing. Nor would we get together with a few of our friends, approach that neighbor and say, Weve voted to take 15 percent of your income because we have some worthwhile things to do with it. How do you vote? We know that would be immoral. The vote wouldnt make it right.

Yet, somehow, when this very same activity is performed under the auspices of government, it is regarded as perfectly proper. We vote for representatives, a majority of whom then vote to take peoples money in order to give it to someone else. How is that morally superior to the ad hoc democracy described above?

Some would respond that it is morally superior because we have all consented to the process. Did we? When were you given a contract to sign? I dont recall getting one. Political philosophers say we have tacitly consented to the process in which we agree to abide by the majority vote, even if it means our money will be taken and given to others. But all that tacit consent means is that we didnt move to another country. Why should a property owner have to move in order to opt out of this confiscatory process? That makes no sense unless the government is the ultimate landlord and people serve as nominal owners only at the pleasure of the state. That is how things work, yet it is not consonant with how people like to view America.

Thus by any reasonable moral standard, no one has really consented to his being relieved of his income through taxation. And even if a particular person did consent, he can consent only for himself. Hes free to give all his money away if he wishes. What he is not free to do is to participate in the looting of others. If persuasion doesnt work, then move along.

A plea for consistency

Libertarianism, as Jeffrey Rogers Hummel points out, is simply a plea for consistency. What you may not do morally as an individual, groups of individuals may not do either, regardless of the political rituals they perform first. Wrong is wrong.

If young people see nothing wrong with a government that primarily exists to transfer wealth from those who have produced it to those who havent, then far from being skeptical and idealistic, they are the most cynical of human beings. They have not mastered what George Washington reputedly said: Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force.

Most young people are products of the governments schools. The people who run those schools have an obvious interest in teaching children that government is to be judged by different standards from those used for the rest of us. When we take from others, its stealing. When the state does it, it is taxation in behalf of the general welfare. When we try to make our neighbors conform to our expectations, it is abominable meddling if not outright criminal behavior. When the government does it, it is regulation in the public interest.

The indoctrination role of the governments schools cannot be overstated. That fact is emphasized for me each week. I teach a course on the economics of environmentalism at a weekly gathering of homeschoolers. The children, 12 to 17, have spent little if any time in the governments schools, or, for that matter, any school at all.

Nevertheless, when I began the course, which is a free-market examination of environmental issues, I expected to hear them regurgitate the standard environmentalist line. It didnt happen. Kept from the states clutches, they have been saved from the steady drumbeat of the environmental religion. They have no interest in defending recycling. They do not fear global warming or ozone thinning. They do not think that a growing population is dangerous. (Im sure the National Education Association would find in this a confirmation of their belief that homeschooling is a form of child abuse.) I actually told them to watch Captain Planet one time just so they could see what everyone else thinks!

The governments indoctrination has far-ranging consequences and its not only that children grow up to be voting adults. Several years ago Proctor & Gamble commissioned a poll to learn where adults get their ideas about the environment. The media placed second in the list of sources. No. 1 was the children. That means parents learn about the environment from the environmentalist groups, which taint the children through the teachers in the governments schools.

While the children in my class have not been taught libertarianism (my children excepted), they come closer to judging government by common-sense moral principles than schooled children and most adults do. I saw that firsthand last semester when I taught a basic economics course. My objective description of the governments case against Microsoft, for example, had them rolling in the aisles. They saw that case for the oppression that it is. In general, they had no trouble grasping the essential nature of government unlike their schooled counterparts.

I dont know why young people keep their distance from politics. Maybe its because they sense the intrinsic flaw, or maybe they are repulsed by superficial features. Their attraction to John McCain indicates the latter reason. McCain never questioned the propriety of using force against peaceful citizens. On the contrary, he embraces coercion in his support for campaign-finance reform, gun control, and the tobacco settlement. If hes what young people are looking for, then they are simply sheep waiting for a charismatic leader to take them to the slaughter.

In any matter you can think of, what besides force does government contribute? The only wealth it has is what it has first taken from others. Whatever brain power it has is provided by people who would be in the private sector if government were not so dominant. There is only one thing government has that no one else possesses: the legal authority to wield aggressive force against people who have bothered no one.

That fact alone should shed light on public service and breed skepticism about politics in the young and everyone else.

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.