Forty years ago, my first article in a national publication appeared in the Freeman. This was also the first piece of mine which paid something other than free copies of the periodical. Actually, the five cents a word pay rate was more than enough to cover a month’s rent.
The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, was a rarity – a respected publication open to previously unpublished writers. I owe managing editor Paul Poirot a hearty thanks for accepting a rough-hewn piece from a 20-year-old college dropout (okay, I forgot to mention being a dropout in my cover letter for the submission). I was stunned to see his acceptance letter as I checked mail for the last time before exiting for a summer hitchhiking around Europe. Poirot gave a huge boost to my confidence at a time when almost everything I submitted elsewhere was spurned. I had been reading the Freeman for years at a college library and the fact that my efforts passed muster there was most encouraging.
That cover letter suggested two other articles and Poirot wrote that “we’ll be happy to consider these pieces if you’d care to send them on speculation.” After I returned from Europe and moved to Boston, I submitted several pieces to him but they did not pass muster. Poirot kindly provided thoughtful criticisms of my pieces but I was not yet literarily corrigible. I did not sufficiently recognize or appreciate good advice from a savvy editor.
Actually, my articles failed to sell everywhere while I was living in Boston. But that spurred some of my best job adventures – working as a Santa Claus, masquerading as a giant rabbit, heaving 50 pound boxes of Idaho potatoes out of a railroad freight car, temping as a non-endowed Kelly Girl typist, and, best of all, doing path-breaking work at the Harvard Business School (shoveling snow there after the Great Storm of 1978).
Perhaps those strikeouts with the Freeman and other publications were thanks to my Guardian Reject Angel. My talents were continuing to ripen and I needed to learn how to squeeze more slack and bombast out of my prose. But having been published in the Freeman probably helped get serious consideration a year later for a pitch on the postal monopoly that the Boston Globe (posted below) published after I left town, and perhaps also for a satirical oped on Congress the New York Times accepted the following year.
A decade after my first piece in the Freeman, I began periodically contributing there again thanks to the encouragement of editor Brian Summers; I later also worked with editor Jim Powell. I wrote most of my Freeman articles for Sheldon Richman, who was more enthusiastic on intellectual bomb-throwing than any editor I have known. I especially enjoyed working with the late Beth Hoffman, the Freeman’s long-term managing editor – she was a rare combination of talent, sweetness, and grace. More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Daniel Bier and Dan Sanchez, FEE’s current managing editor.
In the coming weeks, I will repost my favorite pieces from the Freeman (which ceased print publication last year). Here is that first piece – “Liberty &/vs. Equality.” My passion on this subject was spurred by discussions with my father who, as a geneticist, scoffed at the notion of natural equality. Unfortunately, many people who denied the influence of heredity demanded that government forcibly level humanity. My fierce disdain for socialism shines through.
That piece included a few wild swings at epigrams: “We are surrounded by the relics of liberty smashed on the insatiable altar of equality… Freedom of speech and press are hollow when the State feeds the speaker and owns the press… We should not abandon an incomplete liberty for a perfect servitude.” There are plenty of passages in this essay which make me grimace and a few that make me cringe. But what the hell – here it is.
The Freeman, October 1977
by James Bovard
We sometimes fail to recognize the great conflict between two of our ideals—liberty and equality. In fits of utopianism, we have assumed that our minds are social and political alchemists, deriving gold from whatever process we believe in. The romantic pursuit of two ideals is leading to the failure of both. Unless we can constrain our desires to the dictates of reality, we will become tyrannized by our own dreams.
“Equality” can mean equal material goods and income, equal social status, and equal general success and “happiness” in life. Or, it can mean equality before the law, which is in a different and higher category, and without which liberty would be precarious. However, there is no necessary connection between equality before the law and equal property, power, and so forth. Equality before the law is the “natural” state in a political society, but equality of goods and social life in general is “unnatural,” and would take a great amount of regulation and coercion to achieve and sustain.
I define liberty as the absence of coercion, the individual’s right to do whatever he chooses with his life and property as long as he does not directly harm others. There are other definitions of liberty currently being bounced around; however, we will use the concept that does not necessitate the state’s constant empirical coercion of the individual in order to reach a higher metaphysical realm of freedom.
Even Rousseau conceded that broad natural inequalities exist at birth. This fact has seemed evident to all men at all times, aside from certain skeptics in the last century. Many philosophers or theologians have affirmed the theoretical or theological equality of man at birth; however, few have argued that men are born equal in all capacities. The concept of natural equality of rights is a product of the natural law school of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nineteenth century socialists, with “social justice” as their measure of reality, worked out some attractive conclusions from the assumption that men are born equal in all capacities, so they decided their premise must be true. Lenin’s plans for the end of the division of labor, allowing all men to do all jobs, is a typical example.
There have been schools of biology and psychology which upheld the banners of genetic equality, but these seemed more inspired by political conviction than by concrete evidence. In both these areas, present trends show greater concessions to hereditary inequality. As not all men are uniform, they are often different; as they are different, inequalities must result (unless we believe in only “equal” differences).
No one would dispute the fact of great differences in potential physical structure at birth (some were born to be five feet tall, and others six feet five inches); however, as soon as one speculates that the physically-determining genes might not be entirely and radically different from the mentally-determining genes, screams of “racist” and “elitist” fill the air. But why would the physically and mentally determining genes be so very different in their structure? If some universal orderer did design the plan, why would He allow such obvious physical inequalities to coincide with such perfect mental equality? Also, taking the evolutionist view, certain different physical traits have evolved from the challenge of various environments; is it not also likely that certain broad mental differences would evolve from the same cause?
Regulating the Environment
But even conceding for argument’s sake genetic equality, how could the environment be insured against creating inequalities? Even individuals who are (hypothetically) exactly the same develop differences when subjected to different influences. Free societies, by their very nature, are very diverse, influencing different people countless different ways in various places and times. If one wished to see equality preserved, one would need to have tight controls over the influences on every individual. In order to preserve an equal people, an equal and uniform environment would need to be enforced.
Egalitarians might argue that the state could raise all the children, shaping them in order to equalize them. But this would create a leviathan state likely to suppress the people, destroy the family unity and all the freedom and autonomy that accompany it, and lead to a lifetime of coercion in order to preserve freedom to be equal. Others would contend that with the proper regulations and order in a society, inequalities would be prevented, while “freedom” was preserved.
But what is the value of freedom if the individuals are not allowed to use their “liberty” as they see fit? The society has sacrificed all the realities of liberty to the preservation of a metaphysical phantom of equality. Free society implies the maximum of individual choice, limited only by the physical safety of other individuals. Perhaps socialists and egalitarians consider inequality unsafe, and thus justify multiplying the restraints and coercion of individuals to achieve a “truer” liberty.
Again, if a society is truly free, a high amount of diversity will exist. Individuals will choose different paths, some for the better, some for the worse. But to have one narrow level road, and to actively restrain people from going on their own, to quickly drag down anyone with aspirations for mountain climbing: this is neither free nor healthy.
Somewhere in the intellectual fog of the past century, inequality per se became associated with injustice. Currently many people have guilty consciences if they observe inequalities which have not been leveled. They think what adverse psychological effects the individual’s excellence has on the group ego, and seek to crush all such excellence in the name of egalitarian utility. When the denial of empirical facts becomes a moral obligation, both intellect and morality are in deep trouble.
The achievement of economic equality would destroy almost all economic liberty. Anyone above a certain low level would have most of his income and property confiscated. Some would condone this in the name of justice and utility. However, if any freedom means or is worth anything to the common man, it is usually economic freedom. The average person does not express radical opinions or act as an extreme nonconformist.
Humanity always has had few philosophers and radicals. But, especially in recent centuries, the spirit of economic competition and accumulation has permeated the masses. This is a major cause of the West’s current high standard of living. We can morally condemn the people, tell them they should desire other things, and destroy all outlets of competition. However, would this not be a great infringement on their liberty? If the common man is assigned a certain job in a certain place, dictated his salary, told his hours, will his conception of his personal freedom not greatly suffer?
A Deadly Alternative
Granted, contemporary capitalism is far from perfect competition; but, with an obsession for absolutes, we should not abandon an incomplete liberty for a perfect servitude. Much of the life of the common man (constant TV, loud stereo, alcohol, and the like) is stimulated by an urge to escape from boredom, though there is also a pervading sense of insecurity. To guarantee them a job and welfare might make life intolerably unchallenging for them.
As always, with liberty comes the possibility of failure. If the humanitarians who cannot bear to see individuals suffer for their own errors continue their efforts, we soon will have a whole society suffering from (due to) the ignorance of the “humanitarians.” To take from a person all incentive and responsibility for his own success and prosperity would naturally destroy much of the challenge and excitement of life. What could possibly be more boring than a guaranteed low level of success through fifty working years, with no chance to rise above or fall below official standards?
Given the different desires and capacities of individuals, economic equality could only be preserved by economic tyranny. The state would need tremendous control and power over all the people. Economic equality would for all practical purposes destroy private property, thus undermining the foundation of civil, political, and individual freedom. When the state owns or supplies all the necessities of life, any dissent can easily be starved out. Capital is needed for successful dissent and criticism, and economic equality would destroy almost all capital sources. Freedom of speech and press are hollow when the state feeds the speaker and owns the press. In a free economy, dissenting opinions almost always can find employment and support from some source.
To try to insure social equality would be to fight many of the most “natural” (in the sense of constant historical existence) tendencies in man. Again, society, being composed of different people with different tastes, will form into different groups and segments, according to people’s values and choice. With numerous different groups with different values, some are likely to be thought of as better than others. A hierarchy will establish itself in people’s attitudes, and social discrimination (liking some more than others) will occur.
The only alternative to social inequality is the greatest tyranny imaginable, not allowing any groups to form, not allowing anyone any knowledge about anyone else. Where there is information, there is judgment; and where there is judgment, there likely will be discrimination.
The place for the reformer to battle social inequality is in the thoughts and values of the members of society, not solely in the empirical arrangement. The state can pass decrees demanding an equal and universal love and concern, but this will only be as effective as any other metaphysical, romantic delusion. Social equality will be gained only in the hearts of men, not from the laws of the state.
Not the Inequality, But the Coercion Is Evil
As long as economic inequality exists and the population is not uniform in every way, social inequality will exist. But inequality is only an evil when it is directly coercive or oppressive. To assume that everyone has an equal right to any thing or position that anyone else has, is to call forth the great leveler of all progress, excellence, and sanity.
Some have believed that liberty must be equal, or else it is not liberty. However, liberty, being the absence of coercion rather than the presence of some material good, is not measurable. And, since different people have different tastes, desires, and values, they will use their liberty in different (and hence, “unequal”) ways. To insist that all use their liberty the same would destroy it. Some socialists argue that, due to different social and economic conditions, some have more liberty than others. Again, excessive desire for equality of anything leads to restrictions and organization.
If freedom means the absence of coercion, then those are more free who are less coerced. But if we assume coercion to come mainly from government, then the lack of coercion would be basically equal for all, assuming equality before the law. If, as socialists do, we consider coercion to come from unsatisfied desires, then, as some are more satisfied than others, they are unjustly more free. If we accepted such “reasoning,” we could get into all sorts of clever paradoxes and doubtful demands, which only some Hegelian or Marxist who believed in the “negation of the negation” could resolve.
The true liberty (absence of coercion) and the most valuable equality (before the law) can and must exist together. When we begin blindly pursuing absolutes and romantic ideals, we can only expect our empirical conditions to suffer. The fiery passion of the first “Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité” led to despotism, and we must expect the same pitfall if we follow the same path. As Trotsky said, history cannot be cheated: if we repeat the past’s delusions, we must also repeat their downfalls. We are surrounded by the relics of liberty smashed on the insatiable altar of equality: we can either clear our minds and begin reconstructing, or we can continue appeasing the deity of our time. But if we choose the latter, we must also doom the future to despotism.
The following article was spurred by reading the great anarchist-abolitionist Lysander Spooner and the Journal of Law and Economics – an unusual combination of inspiration. The article had been accepted but was languishing at the Globe until the benevolent intervention of a postal union threatening a nationwide strike.
Boston Globe, July 27, 1978
Time to Stamp out Postal Monopoly
by James Bovard
The cost of mailing a first-class letter has risen 400 percent in the last 20 years. Many people believe mail service has deteriorated during this time. Many reforms have been made, but they have been ineffective, due to the Postal Service’s continued monopoly. The recent strike threat and wage settlements proved the danger and the high costs of preserving the current arrangement.
Why is the Postal Service a monopoly? Who gains and suffers from this arrangement?
The United States Post Office was almost put out of business by private competition in the 1840’s. In 1847, the government charged 25 cents to deliver a letter from Philadelphia to New York; Henry Wells (later of Wells-Fargo fame) entered the market and charged six cents a letter and delivered faster. The Post Office’s usual response to competition has been to urge Congress and the courts to enforce harsher penalties on any competitors.
Some contend that the Postal Service is a “natural” monopoly. If it is natural, why does it need so many legal sanctions to protect it? The private Post Statues forbid anyone from carrying first-class mail for pay. the Post Office is very active in enforcing this later: in the first five months of 1967, 63 people and firms were investigated for possible violation of this statute.
In 1971, a federal district court prohibited a private firm from carrying Christmas cards in Oklahoma on the basis that the plaintiffs, the U.S. Postal Service employees union, suffered “significant loss of work time, employment benefits, and… morale.” The court concluded that the private delivery of Christmas cards would be a “widespread public nuisance.”
The result is that the public suffers lower quality service and higher costs to support postal workers’ “morale.” If the Post Office was commissioned as a “public service,” does it follow that any private corporation that provides faster service at lower prices is a “public nuisance”?
In the restricted areas in which competition is allowed, such as parcels over one pounds, private firms have done very well. As the Postmaster General confessed in 1973, “We damage five packages for everyone one that United Parcel does.” Utility companies are delivering their own mail in many cities, and private mail carriers have sprung up (and received injunctions from courts) in many places, If competition was not so strictly banned, there would be many competitors, each trying to capture the market by offering the best service at the lowest prices.
It is said that allowing private mail service would allow cream-skimming of the highest-value, shortest distance routes. If a private service can deliver such mail faster and cheaper, then why should it not be allowed to do so? Should someone driving from Roxbury to Cambridge be forced to pay for the gasoline of someone else driving from New York to Los Angeles? The Post Office was long satisfied to charge different rates for different destinations, and it was the motive of efficiency, not “social justice,” that brought a uniform postal rate.
The postal monopoly gives a dangerous amount of power to the Postal Service Employees’ Union: A strike could harm the nation. With private competition, no single group would have that potential stranglehold. An eight-day unauthorized mail strike in New York City in 1970 necessitated calling out the National Guard. Postal employees have also agitated to cancel Saturday service.
Last week’s settlement gave postal workers a 6.5% yearly wage increase plus guaranteed job security. Keeping the no-layoff clause prevents any significant innovations, and will perpetuate current inefficiency and waste. Every two or three years, the nation will face new strike threats, even though, with the new settlement, the average salary will reach almost $19,000, more than double the 1971 average.
The only groups gaining from the current monopoly are the postal employees – starting salary for carriers is $8 an hour – and businesses using third and fourth class mail. Nobody advocates subsidizing junk mail (except the junk mailers); yet, it is being done.
Everyone who uses the mail today is paying a monopoly tax twice – once in higher costs, and again in poorer service. The Postal Service has no incentive to give decent service. The people are allowed no alterative, and Congress will pay for any deficit ($680 million last year). Free competition in mail service would give savings and better service to almost everyone. A legally protected, unnatural monopoly is a current waste and a future threat.
More details on my adventures in Boston and elsewhere is on tap in Public Policy Hooligan