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.