Teacups Against the Ocean

There’s a reason that economics is called the dismal science — it reminds us that we live in a finite universe, and a world of scarcity. It reminds us that life isn’t fair.

But not everyone gets the lesson. David McElroy reports on an econ professor in Florida who asked his students a question and received a disheartening set of answers:

On the first day of class last fall, he asked 180 students to take 10 minutes to write an essay about what the American Dream was to them and what they expected the federal government to do to help them achieve what they wanted. The results were frustrating, but not surprising.

They all pretty much wanted families, good jobs, houses and money to have comfortable lives. There was nothing surprising there. But when it came to what they expected from the government, the vast majority wanted something for nothing. Among the samples Chambless [the prof] quotes in his article about the experiment:

  • “pay for my tuition”
  • “provide me with a job”
  • “give me money for a house”
  • “make sure I get free health care”
  • “pay for my retirement”
  • “raise taxes on rich people so that I can have more money”

Once again, we return to the words of the sensei Robert Heinlein:

“The America of my time line is a laboratory example of what can happen to democracies, what has eventually happened to all perfect democracies throughout all histories. A perfect democracy, a ‘warm body’ democracy in which every adult may vote and all votes count equally, has no internal feedback for self-correction. It depends solely on the wisdom and self-restraint of citizens… which is opposed by the folly and lack of self-restraint of other citizens. What is supposed to happen in a democracy is that each sovereign citizen will always vote in the public interest for the safety and welfare of all. But what does happen is that he votes his own self-interest as he sees it… which for the majority translates as ‘Bread and Circuses.’

‘Bread and Circuses’ is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, that day marks the beginning of the end of the state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the productive members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs to an invader—the barbarians enter Rome.”

For “bread and circuses”, we may also substitute “hope and change.” McElroy concurs, noting that the Heinleins of the world are vastly outnumbered in today’s culture, which is dominated by folks like Chambless’s students. In that setting, acting in opposition feels like attempting to bail the ocean with a teacup. And it likely is like that. Again, we need to remember the difference between freedom of and freedom from (as in FDR’s “freedom from want“.) Freedoms from sound terrific to the professor’s students. But they ultimately can’t happen.

That may seem dismal, but what’s even more dismal is that so few people can recognize it.


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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5 Responses to Teacups Against the Ocean

  1. The Ancient says:

    I dunno, Mondo. Don’t you think those answers were baked in the cake?

    What if he’d asked what their conception of the American Dream was and what they intended to do to achieve it? Specifically, what is their plan? Would so many have sounded like Minnie the Moocher? What if he’d asked what percent of their income they thought should go for taxes over the course of their working lives? Or whether the government should dictate the size and location of their future home? Or whether the state should be given a say in what type of medical treatment they or their children could receive? Or the careers they might pursue?

    Quite apart from the fact that most of them probably already understand — however imperfectly — that the government is paying for their health care (deductible health benefits for their families), their houses (deductible mortgage-interest), their jobs (public employment and heavily subsidized industries), their educations (loans, grants and make-work jobs), their retirement (Social Security and 401(k)s).

    P.S. Briefly glancing at the college website, I’d say there’s a very good chance that a majority of the students either already work for government or non-profit institutions, or hope to do so in the future. That also skews the results.

    P.P.S. If you haven’t already seen this —

    • profmondo says:

      Fair points all, especially the P.S.. Honestly, I was a little suspicious when I saw that the prof tends to appear on FNC and its affiliated channels pretty often, which would perhaps tilt the camera-hungry professor into stacking the deck as you’ve suggested. I’ll have to check the article you recommended. Thanks for the tip!

  2. arethusa says:

    Sure, the question may have been slanted, and most of the responses are boilerplate. But I don’t think an answer like, “We all know that there are many bad side effects when regulations take place, but as human beings, we are not really responsible for our own acts, and so we need government to control those who don’t care about others. It makes sense that our freedom is reduced every day with the new regulations” (at the link) can be dismissed so easily. We are not really responsible for our own acts? And so we need government to be responsible for us? Then what’s the point of being human – of living – at all?

    I’d be open to a (good) argument that no human is completely responsible for his or her own actions, but the rest of it…if the writer isn’t just trying to impress the professor with a contrarian viewpoint about government and freedom, I hope there aren’t too many more who think like her.

  3. ricki says:

    I wonder how old the students were. I probably held some pretty foolish ideas at 18 (Though I don’t think I would have expected the government to pay my tuition or find me a job).

    (I LIKE to think I would have said, “I want an interesting career that pays enough for me to be moderately comfortable, a house, a family if that’s in the cards…and I want the government to leave me the heck alone so I’m able to do all that” but I don’t know that I was that smart at 18.)

  4. alexbpop says:

    No kidding. I voted for Ralph Nader when I was 18.

    Nonetheless, I think Professor Chambliss has a point, in that our high school system does nothing to encourage kids to think about the relationship between government handouts, wealth, and work. For starters, economics in an elective in a few high schools. It should be a graduation requirement everywhere. Some serious classes on ethics and moral philosophy where students wrestle with the right and wrong of government programs might help as well. I was lucky in that I got to take political philosophy during my second year of college, and thus became familiar with the classics–despite the professor being a relentless Ayn Rand pushes, we did manage to get seriously into Locke and Jefferson and Rousseau. But most folks today could get through high school and college without taking any class that makes them think about their own government.

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