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Young People Aren’t Skeptical Enough!


Nearly everyone seems to agree on one thing: young people are tragically skeptical about politics. The subject came up in the third debate between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush, both of whom bemoaned the political disillusionment of the young. Minnesota’s governor, Jesse Ventura, constantly talks about it.

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 call for a change at the polls. The Democrats blame “big money in politics” and call for campaign finance reform. Ventura would agree with both sides, while wishing a pox on both their houses.

If I may be permitted a note of dissent. The problem is not that young people are too skeptical about politics. It is that they aren’t nearly skeptical enough!

In other words, if young people think that what’s wrong with politics can be fixed by changing parties or by banning soft money, they are a lot more naive than is commonly thought. The defect of politics runs much deeper that the Democrats and Republicans would have us believe.

To see why, consider this question: Except for a relatively few criminals in society, does anyone think he has the right to help himself to other people’s belongings? Is it okay for you take your neighbor’s 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, “We’ve voted to take 15 percent of your income because we have some important things to do with it.” We know that would be immoral. Our voting on the matter wouldn’t make it right.

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

Some readers 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 don’t 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 tacit consent means is that we didn’t 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. He’s 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 doesn’t work, then move along.

If young people see nothing wrong with a government that primarily exists to transfer wealth from those who have produced it to those who haven’t, 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.”

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 breed skepticism about politics — in the young and everyone else.

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    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.