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A Fairy Tale of Two Cites

by Tim O'Brien
August 10, 2001

Once upon a time the American ideal for governance was what has been called the "Night Watchman" state. Government as nothing more than an impartial arbiter. A protector against force and fraud that, otherwise, left citizens free to buy and sell their goods and services in the voluntary marketplace.

It lasted for about as long as it took someone to figure out that using the force of law to get an advantage over competitors was much easier than doing things better or cheaper. And then to come up with a plausible rationalization for why government interference would actually benefit all the rest of us, as well.

Pretty soon the real action in buying and selling was in lawmaker futures.

Just how naked does the greedy power grab have to get before some impolitic person shouts out to the world that the emperor is prancing around in the altogether?

Try this.

Suppose there was a small, suburban community on the outskirts of a once-great but now decaying, metropolis. Let's call the town Westend.

Life is good in Westend. For all except MegaCorp. The managers of MegaCorp are very unhappy at being undersold and undermined by smaller, hungrier competitors.

Now, being prudent businessmen, these managers have been unofficially paying for local politicians for some time now -- in the form of what everyone calls (wink, wink, nudge, nudge): "campaign contributions."

So they go to their wholly-owned subsidiary politicians, wringing their hands in earnest lamentation at the unfairness of it all. MegaCorp has higher quality standards! And much higher overhead! Something must be done about these annoying little competitors who are taking large bites out their major corporate profits. What is needed, they plead, is a new law. An ordinance that requires the City of Westend, and any businesses doing business with Westend, or receiving any kind of grant, subsidy or tax break from Westend (which pretty much covers everyone in town) to do business only with multi-million dollar companies. As it happens only MegaCorp meets this criterion.

The new law will be called the "Fair Profit" ordinance and the limitation would, MegaCorp executives assure, go a long way towards making the marketplace more secure -- for consumers, as well as MegaCorp personnel. Not to mention MegaCorp profits. And these benefits will, they posture, trickle down to all the happy Westenders.

A few naysayers will undoubtedly complain that the "Fair Profit" ordinance is not fair at all to the legally excluded businesses who weren't guilty of anything more than being smaller, leaner and more efficient. Not to mention the added cost to taxpayers in Westend not taking advantage of the best deals available.

But the whiners can be dismissed as lacking the vision to see all of the benefits of a centrally planned marketplace run by benevolent politicians, compared with the anarchy of uncontrolled buying and selling based only on the selfishness of individual consumers.

Too far-fetched? Okay. Then how about this.

On the other side of town there is another small, suburban community. Let's call this one Eastpointe.

Life is also good in Eastpointe. For all except the members of Local 12 of the Big Brotherhood of United Teamworkers.

The officials of B.B.U.T. (who, incidentally, are as well compensated as their MegaCorp counterparts) represent high wage workers unhappy at being underbid and undermined by poorer, younger, hungrier workers.

Now, being run by astute negotiators, B.B.U.T. representatives have been unofficially paying for local politicians for some time now -- in the form of what everyone calls (wink, wink, nudge, nudge): "campaign contributions."

So they go to their labor-friendly politicians, wringing their hands in earnest lamentation at the unfairness of it all. B.B.U.T. members have higher quality standards! They have families to support!

What is needed, they plead, is a new law. An ordinance that requires the City of Eastpointe, and any businesses doing business with Eastpointe, or receiving any kind of grant, subsidy or tax break from Eastpointe (which pretty much covers everyone in town) to do business only with companies that pay all of their workers at a rate at least equal to the national poverty standard for a family of four.

The new law will be called the "Living Wage" ordinance and the limitation would, union officials assure, go a long way towards making the workplace more secure -- for consumers, as well as Local 12 members. Not to mention B.B.U.T. officials. And these benefits will, they posture, trickle down to all the happy Eastpointers.

Now, a few naysayers may complain that the "Living Wage" ordinance will deprive some of the opportunity to earn any wage at all, such as the young (who have no families) and the working poor (who have only entry level skills) -- workers who aren't guilty of anything more than being unorganized, leaner and more efficient. Not to mention the added cost to taxpayers in not taking advantage of the best wage scales available.

You don't buy that one, either?

Well, of course we know the story of Westend and Eastpointe is a fairy tale. Because this is where we're told by MegaCorp and the Big Brotherhood of United Teamworkers -- and their politicians -- that consumers and taxpayers all lived happily ever after.

Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.

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