The High Cost of Liberalism
By Thomas Sowell
Liberals advocate many wonderful things. In fact, I suspect that most conservatives would prefer to live in the kind of world envisioned by liberals, rather than in the kind of world envisioned by conservatives.
Unfortunately, the only kind of world that any of us can live in is the world that actually exists. Trying to live in the kind of world that liberals envision has costs that will not go away just because these costs are often ignored by liberals.
One of those costs appeared in an announcement of a house for sale in Palo Alto, the community adjacent to Stanford University, an institution that is as politically correct as they come.
The house is for sale at $1,498,000. It is a 1,010 square foot bungalow with two bedrooms, one bath and a garage. Although the announcement does not mention it, this bungalow is located near a commuter railroad line, with trains passing regularly throughout the day.
Lest you think this house must be some kind of designer’s dream, loaded with high-tech stuff, it was built in 1942 and, even if it was larger, no one would mistake it for the Taj Mahal or San Simeon.
This house is not an aberration, and its price is not out of line with other housing prices in Palo Alto. One couple who had lived in their 1,200 square foot home in Palo Alto for 20 years decided to sell it, and posted an asking price just under $1.3 million.
Competition for that house forced the selling price up to $1.7 million.
Another Palo Alto house, this one with 1,292 square feet of space, is on the market for $2,285,000. It was built in 1895.
Even a vacant lot in Palo Alto costs more than a spacious middle-class home costs in most of the rest of the country.
How does this tie in with liberalism?
In this part of California, liberalism reigns supreme and “open space” is virtually a religion. What that lovely phrase means is that there are vast amounts of empty land where the law forbids anybody from building anything.
Anyone who has taken Economics 1 knows that preventing the supply from rising to meet the demand means that prices are going to rise.
Housing is no exception.
Yet when my wife wrote in a local Palo Alto newspaper, many years ago, that preventing the building of housing would cause existing housing to become far too expensive for most people to afford it, she was deluged with more outraged letters than I get from readers of a nationally syndicated column.
What she said was treated as blasphemy against the religion of “open space” — and open space is just one of the wonderful things about the world envisioned by liberals that is ruinously expensive in the mundane world where the rest of us live.
Much as many liberals like to put guilt trips on other people, they seldom seek out, much less acknowledge and take responsibility for, the bad consequences of their own actions.
There are people who claim that astronomical housing prices in places like Palo Alto and San Francisco are due to a scarcity of land. But there is enough vacant land (“open space”) on the other side of the 280 Freeway that goes past Palo Alto to build another Palo Alto or two — except for laws and policies that make that impossible.
As in San Francisco and other parts of the country where housing prices skyrocketed after building homes was prohibited or severely restricted, this began in Palo Alto in the 1970s.
Housing prices in Palo Alto nearly quadrupled during that decade. This was not due to expensive new houses being built, because not a single new house was built in Palo Alto in the 1970s. The same old houses simply shot up in price.
It was very much the same story in San Francisco, which was a bastion of liberalism then as now. There too, incredibly high prices are charged for small houses, often jammed close together. A local newspaper described a graduate student looking for a place to rent who was “visiting one exorbitantly priced hovel after another.”
That is part of the unacknowledged cost of “open space,” and just part of the high cost of liberalism.
Liberals can be disarming. In fact, they are for disarming anybody who can be disarmed, whether domestically or internationally.
Unfortunately, the people who are the easiest to disarm are the ones who are the most peaceful — and disarming them makes them vulnerable to those who are the least peaceful.
We are currently getting a painful demonstration of that in Ukraine. When Ukraine became an independent nation, it gave up all the nuclear missiles that were on its territory from the days when it had been part of the Soviet Union.
At that time, Ukraine had the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world. Do you think Putin would have attacked Ukraine if it still had those nuclear weapons? Or do you think it is just a coincidence that nations with nuclear weapons don’t get invaded?
Among those who urged Ukraine to reduce even its conventional, non-nuclear weapons as well, was a new United States Senator named Barack Obama. He was all for disarmament then, and apparently even now as President of the United States. He has refused Ukraine’s request for weapons with which to defend itself.
As with so many things that liberals do, the disarmament crusade is judged by its good intentions, not by its actual consequences.
Indeed, many liberals seem unaware that the consequences could be anything other than what they hope for. That is why disarmament advocates are called “the peace movement.”
Whether disarmament has in fact led to peace, more often than military deterrence has, is something that could be argued on the basis of the facts of history — but it seldom is.
Liberals almost never talk about disarmament in terms of evidence of its consequences, whether they are discussing gun control at home or international disarmament agreements.
International disarmament agreements flourished between the two World Wars. Just a few years after the end of the First World War there were the Washington Naval Agreements of 1921-1922 that led to the United States actually sinking some of its own warships.
Then there was the celebrated Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, in which nations renounced war, with France’s Foreign Minister Aristide Briand declaring, “Away with rifles, machine guns, and cannon!” The “international community” loved it.
In Britain, the Labour Party repeatedly voted against military armaments during most of the decade of the 1930s. A popular argument of the time was that Britain should disarm “as an example to others.”
Unfortunately, Hitler did not follow that example. He was busy building the most powerful military machine on the continent of Europe.
Nor did Germany or Japan allow the Washington Naval Agreements to cramp their style. The fact that Britain and America limited the size of their battleships simply meant that Germany and Japan had larger battleships when World War II began.
What is happening in Ukraine today is just a continuation of the old story about nations that disarm increasing the chances of being attacked by nations that do not disarm.
Any number of empirical studies about domestic gun control laws tell much the same story. Gun control advocates seldom, if ever, present hard evidence that gun crimes in general, or murder rates in particular, go down after gun control laws are passed or tightened.
That is the crucial question about gun control laws. But liberals settle that question by assumption. Then they can turn their attention to denouncing the National Rifle Association.
But neither the National Rifle Association nor the Second Amendment is the crucial issue. If the hard facts show that gun control laws actually reduce the murder rate, we can repeal the Second Amendment, as other Amendments have been repealed.
If in fact tighter gun control laws reduced the murder rate, that would be the liberals’ ace of trumps. Why then do the liberals not play their ace of trumps, by showing us such hard facts? Because they don’t have any such hard facts. So they give us lofty rhetoric and outraged indignation instead.
Income inequality has long been one of the liberals’ favorite issues. So there is nothing surprising about its being pushed hard this election year.
If nothing else, it is a much-needed distraction from the disasters of ObamaCare and the various IRS, Benghazi and other Obama administration scandals.
Like so many other favorite liberal issues, income inequality is seldom discussed in terms of the actual consequences of liberal policies. When you turn from eloquent rhetoric to hard facts, the hardest of those facts is that income inequality has actually increased during five years of Barack Obama’s leftist policies.
This is not as surprising as some might think. When you make it unnecessary for many people to work, fewer people work. Unprecedented numbers of Americans are on the food stamp program. Unprecedented numbers are also living off government “disability” payments.
There is a sweeping array of other government subsidies, whether in money or in kind, which together allow many people to receive greater benefits than they could earn by working at low-skilled jobs. Is it surprising that the labor force participation rate is lower than it has been in decades?
In short, when people don’t have to earn incomes, they are less likely to earn incomes — or, at least, to earn incomes in legal and visible ways that could threaten their government benefits.
Most of the households in the bottom 20 percent of income earners have nobody working. There are more heads of household working full-time and year-round in the top 5 percent than in the bottom 20 percent.
What this means statistically is that liberals can throw around numbers on how many people are living in “poverty” — defined in terms of income received, not in terms of goods and services provided by the government.
Most Americans living in “poverty” have air conditioning, a motor vehicle and other amenities, including more living space than the average person in Europe — not the average poor person in Europe, the average person.
“Poverty” is in the eye of the statisticians — more specifically, the government statisticians who define what constitutes “poverty,” and who are unlikely to define it in ways that might jeopardize the massive welfare state that they are part of.
In terms of income statistics that produce liberal outcries about “disparities” and “inequities,” millions of people who don’t have to earn incomes typically don’t.
The more people who are in a non-income-earning mode, the greater the disparities with the incomes of those of us who have to work for a living, and who have to earn more to offset high tax rates.
Yet liberals often act as if this is an injustice to those who don’t work, rather than an injustice to those who do work, and whose taxes support those who don’t.
Actually, the liberal welfare state is an injustice to both, though in different ways.
Despite whatever good intentions some liberals may have had in creating the ever-growing welfare state, practical politicians know that more dependency means more votes for supporters of bigger government.
There are no incentives for either politicians or the bureaucrats who run the welfare state agencies to get people off their dependency on government programs. Moreover, the eligibility rules create a very high cost to individuals who try to rise by getting a job and earning their own money.
It is not uncommon for someone who is receiving multiple government-provided benefits — housing subsidies, food subsidies, etc. — to lose more in benefits than they gain in income, if they decide to take a legitimate and visible job.
If increasing your income by $10,000 a year would cause you to lose $15,000 worth of government benefits, would you do it? That is more than the equivalent of a 100 percent tax rate on income. Even millionaires and billionaires don’t pay that high a tax rate.
Liberals don’t talk — or perhaps even think — in terms of the actual consequences of their policies, when it is so much more pleasant to think in terms of wonderful goals and lofty rhetoric.