For me, one image from the 2008 presidential election stands out. It's the YouTube video of "Peggy the Moocher," an Obama supporter who has just listened to an Obama campaign speech. Peggy gushes, "I won't have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won't have to worry about paying my mortgage. If I help [Obama get elected], he's gonna help me." Peggy appears to be over twenty-one and of sound mind and body, but neither she nor anyone else explains just why other people should be forced to pay for her gas or her house.
As moochers go, Peggy is small-time. Compared to the big-time moochers who benefited from the billion-dollar bailouts orchestrated by Presidents Bush and Obama, what's one woman who wants help with her house payments?
What strikes me about Peggy, though, is the way she just lays her sense of
entitlement right on the table without bothering to justify it. Most moochers at least make a token effort. I had a rough childhood. My ancestors were oppressed. My company is too big to fail. Peggy, however, seems completely unashamed of living at others' expense.
The 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat had a harsher word for moochers. He called them plunderers.
Each human being, Bastiat believed, has two available approaches to getting his needs and wants met. One way is to produce something useful to humans. He can then use what he has produced, or he can exchange it for something someone else has produced. This is the way of producers.
The second approach is not to produce, but to take, by force or fraud, what others have produced. This is the way of thieves and swindlers, or as Bastiat called them, plunderers.
Bastiat had no illusions about human nature. He believed humans usually take the easiest road, so as long as it is easier to improve one's lot by plunder rather than by production, most people will become plunderers.
The purpose of law, therefore, is to protect producers while making plunder difficult, dangerous, and unprofitable, so people will choose to become producers instead.
Bastiat condemned what he called "the perversion of law." He saw that some governments not only failed to prevent plunder, but actively participated in it, helping the plunderers take from the producers.
Bastiat called this government-assisted plunder "legal plunder." He considered legal plunder far more destructive than illegal forms of plunder like theft and fraud — because legal plunder perverts the very meaning of law and civilization.
Government handouts are the most obvious forms of legal plunder. If Peggy takes another person's money, she'll be arrested for theft, but if the government takes another person's money (through taxation) and mails it to Peggy, it's considered legitimate, even humanitarian.
Suppose an artist can't find any buyers for her work. If she is a plunderer, she can obtain a government grant, effectively forcing taxpayers to purchase her work whether they want to or not.
A manufacturer whose sales are declining can get a government subsidy, forcing taxpayers to pay for his products against their will.
Some forms of legal plunder don't involve direct handouts, but concern twisting the rules to gain an unearned advantage.
A company can lobby for tariffs to protect to protect it from foreign competition. Good for the company. Bad for consumers.
A car manufacturer that emphasizes small cars can support legislation raising mileage standards, gaining business while getting good PR for being "environmentally sensitive."
Bastiat made some predictions about the results of legal plunder.
He predicted that legal plunder would exaggerate the role of politics in life. Today, many Americans seem to believe that political activism — rather than production, entrepreneurship, and hard work — is the best way to get ahead.
Bastiat also predicted that victims of legal plunder would pursue political office, but instead of using political power to put an end to plunder, they would become plunderers themselves. Today, elections often seem like competitions between competing gangs of plunderers, each planning to use government power to advance its special interests. It isn't a matter of whether to plunder, but of who is going to plunder whom.
With the mid-term election nearing, Republican candidates claim to have rediscovered the principles they lost when they were in power. They say if elected they will put a stop to the plundering ways of the Democrats.
If Bastiat were alive today, I suspect he'd say that sending the Republicans to keep an eye on the Democrats isn't enough. We also need vigilant voters to keep an eye on the all-too-human Republicans.