“Government should control prices, but not people.”

By Dean Russell

Perhaps you recall the fable of the scorpion who asked the beaver to carry him across a lake. The beaver declined the request with this deduction: “If I let you get on my back, you’ll sting me and paralyze me and cause me to drown.”

But the scorpion out-deduced him with this rejoinder: “I can’t swim. Thus if I sting you while we are in the lake, I’ll drown too. Obviously I wouldn’t do anything to cause that.”

The beaver could find no fault in that logic. So, being a kind-hearted fellow, he invited the scorpion aboard and set out across the lake. Right in the middle of it, the scorpion stung the beaver and paralyzed him.

As they sank together to the bottom of the water, the beaver reproachfully pointed out to the scorpion that both of them would now drown. “Why did you sting me?” he asked.

“I couldn’t help it,” tearfully replied the scorpion. “It’s my nature.”

Fables, of course, contain a moral that can be applied to human affairs. This one pertains to several of our current problems. For example, the nature of price controls is people control. A quart of milk or an aspirin obviously is not concerned about the price tag it carries. Prices are of concern only to human beings. And the only thing that can be controlled by government in this process of minimum and maximum prices is people.

The nature of the operation is this: Persons who exercise the police powers of government use those powers to control the people who produce milk, distribute milk, and buy milk. The price of drugs is never controlled by government; the controls apply only to the persons who produce, sell, and use the drugs. When the government enforces a minimum wage, it is persons, not things, that the officials watch and control.

The person who favors rent control wants the police powers used to control individuals who own houses for rent, and families who wish to live in such houses. Purely and simply, he favors controlling people and forcing them to do what he wants them to do.

But when such a person is flushed out from behind his euphemistic and comfortable word-shield, he is usually honestly astounded that anyone could possibly believe that he favors people control. Try it sometime. You will invariably get a response somewhat as follows: “I am opposed to controlling people. In fact, I support all sorts of organizations and causes to give people more freedom. True enough, I do believe that the government should control certain prices for the benefit of all; but control people — never! Now stop spouting this nonsense about people control. There is a limit to my patience.”

And so it goes. Actually, when you stop and think about it, no government can ever really support a price. Prices don’t give a hang about supports; it’s not their nature. The nature of all governmental schemes to “support prices” is this: Some people who control the police powers of government use them to take money from other people who have earned it, and to give it to still other people who have not earned it. That’s all it is. Calling it by another name cannot change its nature, for better or for worse.

Why do persons object to coming right out with it and saying, “Of course I’m in favor of people control. I don’t need you to tell me that it’s only people, not inanimate objects or ideas, that can be controlled. But don’t forget that I am doing it for their own good. In various of these vital economic areas, I am convinced that I know what is best for them and for us all.”

While I would disagree with that candid person, I could still admire him after a fashion. At least he would have the courage of his convictions. For example, Robin Hood was a robber in every sense of the word, but at least he had more personal courage than do the despicable characters who sneak up on their victims and sandbag them from behind.

Perhaps the reason for our preference for the euphemistic “price controls,” rather than the realistic “people controls,” lies deep in our own natures. All of us seem instinctively to want to help our fellowmen. But we observe that there are so many of them who want help of various sorts, and that our own personal resources are so limited. But by voting to have the government do it, we can satisfy both our charitable instincts and our sense of fair play. Also, that easy procedure has several other fringe benefits. When we vote to help others, we are thereby fulfilling our patriotic duty as good citizens to participate in the affairs of government. In addition, this procedure doesn’t require much personal effort. Also, we are usually promised that somebody else will have to pay the cost.

The next time you hear a politician or a neighbor advocating price supports or rent control or some similar subsidy, ask him why he favors people control, and forcing other peaceful persons to do what he wants them to do, and taking money from people who have earned it and giving it to others who haven’t.

At that point, however, you had better duck. For the nature of the ambitious politician and the well-intentioned do-gooder is to consider only the “fine objectives” of their plans and to ignore completely the shoddy means used to enforce them. They won’t appreciate your calling this to their attention.