Aesop tells us of a farmer who had a magical goose; one that would lay golden eggs. The farmer lived well enough selling the eggs, but he got impatient; in his ignorance of how things worked, he cut the goose open to get all the eggs at once. Is our society doing the same thing; killing the goose that lays the golden eggs?
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Responsibility Flow (chart)
My first guess is that we are all familiar with Aesop’s fable–a fictional story with a moral–about the farmer who had a goose that laid golden eggs. He and his family were living well by selling the eggs, but he lost patience with having to wait for the cash from the next egg, and in his ignorance of how things in the world work, cut the goose open to get at the stash.
My second guess is that most of us laugh at the farmer’s ignorance, and say to ourselves if he was that ignorant and greedy, well, he got what he deserved. Maybe. But what about his family; they suffered along with him when the goose died. And it wasn’t their fault. And is our society, in it’s ignorance, doing essentially the same thing?
In the fable the golden goose was the farmer’s dependable source of wealth. Not understanding–or caring to understand–how this wealth was produced, the farmer allowed his greed to destroy the goose, and the source of wealth for himself and his family. In our country, capitalism is the dependable source of wealth. In fact, entrepreneurial capitalism is the greatest wealth-producing engine the world has ever seen. Or ever will see.
This greatest wealth-producing engine needs two things to be complete:
- Controls, guide rails, if you will and
- A mechanism for distributing some of that wealth.
The guide rails start with the moral compasses of the people who participate in a capitalist economy; the people who are driving that engine, working in it and those benefiting from it. Along with those moral compasses, we need government regulation. Even if we were all perfect and never took advantage of each other, and that is far from the truth, some regulations would still be needed. The conversation about regulation starts with how many regulations are needed and in what sectors, not whether we need any at all.
The distribution conversation starts with who gets the money that someone else made, and how much of it do they get? It does not start with do we distribute wealth at all in our society. Here are some clear examples, and some questions:
- Take roads, bridges, military, fire protection and law enforcement. Governments must tax to pay for these needed services. Some people pay dramatically more in taxes than others, with their tax money distributed to those others by paying for these government services that everyone uses.
- Some people are utterly incapable of providing for themselves, no matter how hard they try and no matter how long they try. There is no question that money from taxpayers should be distributed to these people. The question is what kind of lifestyle should this redistributed wealth provide? Healthcare, food, shelter and clothing are necessary and should be provided, but at what level? And are other things, entertainment for example, also necessary, and should they be paid for as well? Ah, and what is the role of family and friends, and community and charity with individuals who cannot do for themselves?
- Then there is everyone and everything else. Most of us agree that those who will not work, as opposed to those cannot work, should be left with the unhappy consequences of that choice. But how tightly or loosely do we define “cannot work?” On January 14th of 2018, the Associated Press ran an article about a Thomas Penister of Milwaukee. Mr. Penister, 36, has been unemployed for four of the last five years, on Medicaid for the last two, and is seeing a behavioural therapist. He states that he is simply not ready to rejoin the workforce. Quoting Mr. Penister, “Would it be advantageous for me even to rejoin the workforce instead of me therapeutically transitioning to a state where I am actually ready to perform in the workforce?” It sounds a lot like he simply does not want to to to work. What does it sound like to you? Do you see Mr. Penister as a legitimate recipient of redistributed income because he is in the “cannot work” group, or should he be cut adrift from welfare because he is taking advantage of the system? Other than a strong work ethic, and a moral compass that would not allow him to take money that is not absolutely needed, what could possibly be Mr. Penister’s motivation to leave the welfare system and go back to work? I don’t see one. And every part of the welfare system, from worker bees to managers to Mr. Penister’s therapist, all have an economic incentive to keep him–and others–in the system. Only a strong work ethic and a well-developed moral compass could be sufficient motivation for these people–or anyone–to go against their economic self-interests.
Many people are making the case that mounting spending and the connected mounting debt, increasing government regulations and restrictions, along with a growing antipathy to capitalism and capitalists, is how we are killing our golden goose–to be followed by consequences similar to the economic crash suffered by the farmer in Aesop’s story. That’s a reasonable theory, but it does not go to the heart of what’s going on. Our economy, built on freedom, a powerful work ethic and capitalism, has long been the biggest and best in the world. In recent decades, no other country is even in second place. America’s economy is powerful and deep; it can stand many decades of attack from overspending, over-regulation, infrastructure neglect and other abuses before it fails. The golden goose will die a lingering death, and keep laying eggs until the end. Our national character is different.
This country was built on personal freedom, loyalty to each other, a powerful work ethic and a moral compass anchored to an entity outside of ourselves. This combination, our national character, is powerful–and fragile. While it would take generations of abuse and neglect for our economy, our golden goose, to fail, our national character can crumble in far less time. If we let it.
The Russians–or anyone else who might want to bring us down–don’t need to hack into our elections, or outmaneuver us in the Middle East, or work to further minimize NATO. All they would need to do is to replace our work ethic with entitlement, substitute personal freedom with adherence to politically-created norms, change loyalty to each other to a loyalty to self-serving identity groups, and make our moral compasses internal and based on what we think is moral at the moment.
They may not have to bother. Doesn’t it seem that we are doing the Russians’ jobs for them? Tell me what you think. Tell me where you think we are, and what you believe we should be doing. Then join with me and others at Results With Reason to do it.
Here’s a suggestion for a place to start (with a nod to Gandhi): Be a standout example of the national character you wish our nation to adopt.
As we get ready to wrap up, please do reach out with comments or questions about this podcast or anything that comes to mind. You can email me at email@example.com, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Frequency: Results With Reason publishes two podcasts and related blogs each week; midday on Tuesdays and Fridays. Twice a week, every week.
Now it is time for our usual parting thought. For us at Results With Reason, it is not only change your thinking, change your life. It is change your thinking, change your actions, change the world. And if you can do it in love and enjoy the people around you at the same time, all the better. And if we, you and I, don’t do something, then the others who are doing something, will continue to run the show.
Remember: Knowledge by itself is the booby prize.
Will Luden, writing to you from my home office at 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.