Taxing and giving away

Government bailouts for the ‘important’ people are unjust

I HAVE a plan to get us both rich quickly: You lend me all your money. I take it to Atlantic City and gamble it into $2 million. Then I return to Charlottesville, give you $1 million, and keep $1 million for myself. Do we have a deal?
Risk? What risk? You’re lending me all your money — the government won’t let you lose it! You need some way to get through the school year. I may end up out the price of a ticket to Atlantic City, but your money is perfectly safe, as safe as if you’d left it in your checking account, which will never turn a student into a millionaire. Too bad that proposal isn’t really safe. If we lost money in Atlantic City, our loss would be our own. The government wouldn’t consider us important enough to rescue.
Actually, of course, that’s not “too bad.” It’s as it should be. Consider what it would mean for the government to make good our gambling loss. The government has to get that money from somewhere, and, unless it trims something else in its budget, that’s probably going to mean raising taxes or issuing more government debt.
And what is government debt? It is — absent something surprising such as the wholesale liquidation of the national forests — merely deferred taxation. Even if the debt is never paid off, interest must be paid. The principal source of government money is: taxation.
And what is taxation? Taxation is taking someone else’s money. Broad-based taxes may be justified in order to provide the basic functions of government, on which we depend for our safety: the courts, the police and the armed forces. But surely taxation is not justified when its purpose is to make sure I can run a get-rich-quick scheme at no risk.
When John Q. Taxpayer makes money, he makes it for himself. That, as Ayn Rand taught, is how human beings live: by producing the values they need. If John wants to use some of it to sponsor someone to get rich, it will be himself or, perhaps, someone he knows and values. You and I have no right to use the government to force him to give that money to us instead.
What, then, is the difference between us going to the government when my get-rich-quick scheme fails and a major Wall Street firm looking for a government bailout when its moneymaking strategies fail?
There is (one hopes) a difference in the degrees of risk we and the firms took. Their projects were probably more likely than mine to succeed. But it was up to them and their investors to judge their risks, just as it’s up to you to judge the risk of my casino gambling plan. In a free society, it has to be up to investors to judge their own risks — and it should be up to them to a greater degree than it is. But investors have no right to expect that they can choose risks and force others to bear the losses — that wouldn’t be choosing their own risks anymore: they would be choosing other people’s risks.
There is (one hopes) a difference in productiveness. Investing supports productive activity — or it attempts to do so. But if it fails, it’s because the activity it supported was not actually productive, or not productive enough to make the investment a good one. That’s no reason to force others to bear the losses.
And when there is a widespread “financial crisis” such as the current one, there is a difference in who is losing the money. As the government sees it, the people and institutions who are losing their assets in the current situation are too important to be allowed to suffer such losses. Or rather, some of them (such as Fannie Mae and, it may turn out, financially reckless homeowners) are, while others (such as Lehman Bros.) are not.  
Defenders of government intervention will say that the favored people and institutions really are more important to the economy considered as a whole than the disfavored ones. This may be so. But what is important to the economy as a whole is not necessarily what’s important to each individual taxpayer.
The financial bailout comes down to something very simple: The government has decided that some people and institutions are more important than others. The important ones will get rescued; the less important ones get forced to pay for the rescue. And meanwhile, of course, the less important ones get to struggle on, if they can, trying to pay their own debts.
Alexander R. Cohen’s column usually appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at
a.cohen@cavalierdaily.com.

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