I was generally not quick to shout "OMG teh fascism!!" during the Bush Administration, and now I am not quick to shout "OMG teh socialism" during the Obama Administration. Such terms are thrown around unseriously and uselessly.
But recently — especially in the wake of the ineffectual rage over AIG and its bonus structure — I've been hearing language that reminds me of what I find objectionable about genuine socialism — the totalitarian impulse and the invasion of individual autonomy. That language concerns what people need.
I've been hearing a lot that AIG executives don't need bonuses because they are already rich. I've heard that nobody "needs" that much money. I've heard that executives like those at AIG simply use the money to buy things they "don't need." I've heard people argue that because executives can only eat so many meals a day, live in so many houses, and drive so many cars, they don't "need" more. I've heard the typical Doctor-Phil-quality psychoanalysis from people sneering that money, and "useless" things, is only how petty people keep score. And I've heard plenty of people complain that the economy is doomed because it is premised on people borrowing money to buy things they don't "need."
But in a free society, what business is it of ours what people "need," if they are earning and spending their own money? (Skeptics will say that the recent AIG bonuses were taxpayers' money, not the exec's own money — a proposition that is incorrect, but in a way beyond the scope of this post.) I don't "need" the books and games and music I buy — or at least, there is surely some bean-counter-at-heart who is willing to parse them and say I don't "need" all of them. My father doesn't "need" the Asian art collection he has spent a lifetime carefully accumulating. People don't "need" to see Paris, or ski with the family, or eat a meal at a restaurant instead of rice and beans at home. But each of those choices is an expression of our own values, goals, and autonomy. Those purchases matter to us, even if some third person does not value them in the same way.
If we buy what we cannot afford, and borrow what we cannot repay to do it, then we should suffer the consequences and not expect undue sympathy. But why should free people endure others presuming to dictate to us what we do or don't "need" to do with our own earnings, or what earnings we "need," as opposed to what earnings the market decides our efforts are worth? I mistrust, and am repulsed by, the impulse to determine what another adult does nor doesn't "need" to do with his or her own money. It strikes me as sick and voyeuristic, an expression of the dysfunctional need to control another, akin to dictating whom I may love or marry or what I can read or say. An individual — or a society — that is willing to tell me what I do or don't need to buy with my own money is an individual or society that is willing to invade my autonomy in any number of other ways.
So what, you say? So I'd like to see some pushback. Next time some elected representative, or commentator, or citizen spouts off about how much pay somebody needs, or whether or not some unpopular person needs the things they choose to buy with their own money, I hope somebody has the stones to throw it back in their teeth. Ask that interlocutor to defend their "need" for each dollar they own. Ask to go to their house, examine their belongings and accounts, and compel them to defend their "need" for each item or service they have bought. The only appropriate response of a free people to such intolerable presumption is contempt — and aggressive contempt, lest the notion take firmer root.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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