“Americans Squander Their Incomes on Themselves While Public Needs Are Neglected.”
By Edmund A. Opitz
The society is affluent, we are told— but affluent only in the private sector, alas! The public sector— meaning the political structure which our society spends two-fifths of its energy to maintain— starves. Mr. and Mrs. America bounce along in their tail-finned chariot over a bumpy highway— the best road their government can build with the niggardly resources permitted it. They queue up to pay scalper’s prices for tickets to the World Series with nary a thought that this indulgence contributes to the non-building of a political housing project in an already overcrowded city. That evening they dine at an expensive restaurant, and government, as a result, lacks the means to supply water for a dam it has just constructed in a drought area. Americans, in short, go in big for private indulgence at the very time when the Crisis, long anticipated by the Certified Thinkers, demands The Opulent State.
Those who advance this line of criticism are perfectly correct on one point: if there is to be an increase in political spending, there must be a consequent decrease in private spending; some people must do without. The well-being of individual persons in any society varies inversely with the money at the disposal of the political class. All money spent by the governing group is taken from private citizens — who otherwise would spend it quite differently on goods of their choice. The state lives on taxes, and taxes are a charge against the economically productive part of society.
The Opulent State, fancied by levelers who criticize the Affluent Society, cannot exist except as a result of massive interference with free choice. To establish it, a society of freely choosing individuals must yield to a society in which the lives of the many are collectively planned and controlled by the few.
The state, in our Affluent Society, already deprives us of two-fifths and more of our substance. Not enough! say the critics. How much then? Fifty per cent? A hundred? Enough, at any rate, so that no life shall go unplanned if they can help it. This is the ancient error of authoritarianism. The intellectual, from time immemorial, has dreamed up ethical and esthetic standards for the rest of mankind — only to have them ignored. His ideas may be ever so sound, but his efforts to persuade people to embrace them meet with scant success. The masses are too ignorant to know what is good for them, so why not impose the right ideas on them by direct political action? The state is too weak and poor? Well, make it strong and rich, he urges; and it is done. But when the state is strong and rich, it devours the intellectual together with his defenseless ethical and esthetic standards. The state acts from political and power motives, as by its nature it must. It cannot possibly be the means of realizing the dreams of spiritual advance.
Every society devises some public means of protecting its peaceful citizens against the violent action of others, but this is too limiting a role for government to satisfy the censors of the Affluent Society. Such a government cannot legislate morality or enforce egalitarianism. The massive state interference they advocate is designed, they say, to protect the people from the consequences of their own folly, and the way to do this is to pass anti-folly laws to prevent wrong choices.
There are degrees of wisdom, true, and some people are downright foolish. This being the case, a lot of people will live by the rule of “easy come, easy go.” They spend their money at the races when the roof needs repair, or they install color TV even though they are still paying on the motor boat. In a free society this is their right! This is part of what it means to be free! The exercise of freedom invariably results in some choices that are unwise or wrong. But, by living with the consequences of his foolish choices a man learns to choose more wisely next time. Trial and error first; then, if he is free, trial and success. But because no man is competent to manage another, persistent error and failure are built-in features of the Opulent State.