Nothing is more corrosive to a group’s cohesion than free riders.1
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Humans are groupish. We live in territorial groups, and mostly we are ruled over by governments that defend us from predators and pirates. So far so good. But human groups suffer not just from enemies foreign and domestic; they also must deal with group members that don’t pull their weight, people that take advantage of group membership without contributing much to the general welfare. In the face-to-face stateless community of the village these freeloaders are encouraged to greater effort by shame or expulsion, but in the state society of the agricultural age and now the industrial age things are not so simple. In state societies the ruling class secures its power by offering rewards to its supporters; in other words, it encourages in its supporters exactly what it must deplore in the society at large.
Every society since the dawn of the agricultural age has needed a government, and every government, from a band of insurgent guerrillas to a feudal kingdom to a continental empire, needs supporters. These supporters may be soldiers; they may be the next step down in the feudal hierarchy; they may be democratic voters. These supporters want what only government can deliver: loot. The guerrilla soldiers may want ministries in the soon-to-come revolutionary state. The barons commanding their powers in the feudal host may want more lands in the gift of the king. The voters in democratic republics want free stuff: pensions, health care, education; they want relief from the risks of daily life. These government supporters are, in a word, freeloaders.
But nothing is free; the loot that government promises its supporters must come from somewhere, from wealth created by other people. No doubt the unjust regime had it coming, and so the guerrilla leaders are justified in sharing out the old regime’s ill-gotten gains among their loyal supporters who were there during the times that tried men’s souls: no summer soldiers and sunshine patriots were they. The feudal king needs his great feudatories and must reward them when they show up with their powers to fight for him. And the democratic politician needs the millions of votes it takes to get elected to office in the modern welfare state. But how much is enough? All the subventions that the government makes to reward its supporters are taken from productive citizens. To the extent that the government hands out goodies, so far do its supporters ease off from making contributions to the general welfare and output through work and production. How much of this freeloading is enough, how much is just, and what principle can be advanced to put a limit on it, and say, at some point, to the regime supporters: get a job?
If we review the three ages: hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and modern, we see the changes rung on the problem of the freeloader. In the hunter-gatherer band the freeloader is dealt with by shame and guilt. In the agricultural age the freeloader is dealt with by the force of the feudal hierarchy; he must pay rent, work on his lord’s demesne, or get kicked out. But in the modern age the economy apportions gains and losses. The worker connects with society through the mediating institution of the market – for skills, for ideas, for products and services. The freeloader goes to the wall unless and until he surrenders himself to the will of society, expressed through the supply and demand of the market.
In reality, things are not quite so simple, for nature does not throw away the old ways when something new comes along. So it is that shame and guilt survived the agricultural and industrial revolutions. So it is that political power survived the industrial revolution. In our modern era we see all methods of socialization competing for cultural space. Shame and guilt have been expanded from face-to-face relations to class and race shame. Time was that the Negro race was backward and shameful; now whites are racists and exploiters of the traditionally exploited and marginalized and ought to be ashamed.
So also the culture of the armed band, its celebration of loot and plunder, survives in modern politics. People still look to their sovereign lord or political boss for patronage and gifts.
By some measures the modern state has extended loot-and-plunder principle about as far as it can go. The modern state maintains a military and police establishment complete with ranks and subordination and pensions, and it hands out offices and rewards to political activists it wants to co-opt and promote. But it also derives its power from the distribution of free stuff, jobs in the bureaucracy for administrators and regulators, and a vast array of “entitlements,” pensions for which people may qualify by reason of age or unemployment, poverty, disability, or race, or gender.
When F.A. Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom he criticized the socialists’ plans for national organization and planning. The very title of his book implied that socialism was a reactionary movement that was taking the modern world back to the old ways. The socialists’ method of implementing universal social security, he argued, would necessarily introduce a harsh regime of rigidity and subordination. It would require not just nationalizing the means of production away from private owners, but would create new powers for government that the private owners never possessed. The socialist state would create a nationalization of thought, in which the wrong sort would tend to rise to the top. He wanted to tell the western ruling class that its political plans would force the people back into a kind of neo-serfdom in which ordinary people would find themselves, willy-nilly, dragooned into a national industrial army.
Hayek viewed the socialist project from the top down, from the view of the ruling class directing traffic on the streets below, since his book was dedicated “to the socialists of all parties.” But what about the other view, from the bottom up? From this view the people are not being dragooned at all. They are willingly joining the colors. They vote for the party that proffers the most free stuff. They discuss how to qualify for subsidized housing, for student loans, for small business loans. They learn how to qualify for Social Security Disability; they figure how to get into the local fire department. They are trying to find a berth that will assure them a lifetime income and take them out of the hurly-burly and the risk of employment-at-will in the modern global economy. Having acquired such a berth and the perquisites that go with it they quickly persuade themselves that they deserve it, and they resist all attempts to reduce or eliminate their income from the state or from their Fortune 500 employer; they may even mutiny and bite the hand that feeds them to assert their “rights.”
In seeking lifetime release from the burden of individual responsibility they are returning to the ancient attitude to work. In his essay “The Readiness to Work” longshoreman Eric Hoffer casts a peculiar light upon this question. He notes that the celebration of work is a new phenomenon in the world.
In practically all civilizations that we know of, and in the Occident for too many centuries, work was viewed as a curse, a mark of bondage, or, at best, a necessary evil.2
It turns out, Hoffer reckons, that societies have two options with respect to work. Either the government tells everyone what to do or, as in the modern Occident, the autonomous individual decides. In the old system, where the ruler or the ruling class decides what work is to be done and who is to do it, no worker has a reason to work any more than ordered, or to expend any personal effort beyond the minimum demanded. It is clear what this kind of society does to the individual subject. It makes the subject into a serf with no responsibilities, who waits for orders, and then just does what he is told to do and no more: a freeloader. In practice, of course, the ruler and his henchmen tend to lose interest in the exact details of the work they direct; they have important political business to attend to. So as time goes by, there is a tendency for the individual worker to slowly gain autonomy and control over his working life; this was perhaps the real downfall of the feudal system: not that the feudal servants were hurled onto the labor market but that their masters lost interest in the work of supervision.
The new system is of course not a system. It is a cultural revolution in which the burden of figuring out the work to be done and then doing it descends upon the autonomous individual. And it is a burden.
An autonomous existence is heavily burdened and beset with fears, and can be endured only when bolstered with confidence and self-esteem.3
Moreover the average individual is not given extraordinary talent or energy to advertise his worth; he “must prove [his] worth by keeping busy.” This is the meaning of the cult of work that has taken over the Occident since the end of the feudal era and has now spread to the rest of the world. The man that is responsible for his life is a man that can never rest, never repose into indolence. He must keep busy, and for most of us that means he must voluntarily work and do things for other people.
Nor is this cult of work unique to the Occident. In China after the breakup of feudalism and the birth of the imperial mandarin bureaucracy 1,500 years ago the Chinese people found themselves toiling under a similar responsibility. Land had to be divided among male heirs, so if the heirs were not to inherit diminished shares of land, a father had to work hard enough to buy up land to provide sustenance for his surviving sons. Otherwise his heirs would inherit only a share of the father’s estate, slide into poverty and eventually lose all their land and, after a generation or two, end up as unmarried landless laborers.
As we have seen, longshoreman Eric Hoffer explained what is going on here in his idea that there are two ways to make sure that society’s work gets done. Either the rulers take responsibility, and issue detailed orders to the common folk that sets them to work, or society can delegate that responsibility to the common folk and let them figure it out themselves. Under serfdom it is clearly the responsibility of the local lord to set his peasants to work, and this tradition is carried over into the modern socialist state of which Hayek warned. Of course the socialist state does not advertise its command economy as turning back the clock, except to nod approvingly at the concept of “rational planning.” It advertises instead the benefits that flow to its faithful servitors, the workers and peasants, the government employees, the activists that form its “base.” And it entices others to its banners with new benefits. But it is obvious that the more that the government distributes in benefits the more it must extract from the economy by taxation and other forms of coercion to satisfy its supporters. The more that it delivers the more it must approximate its national economy to a war economy where the government’s taxation, borrowing, and money creation attempt to mobilize the entire national economy towards a simple national goal, and coordinate the efforts of each individual to make him contribute to the war effort. The more the economy is transformed towards a war economy the more that the government will find itself issuing explicit orders to each individual, telling him what work to perform.
Everyone desires to continue enjoying their current prosperity without reduction, and wants to believe that their life situation ought to continue without diminution in emolument. Such a person represents but one one place in a whole continuum of life choices with respect to risk and security. At one end of the continuum are people that will risk anything for the chance of improvement; at the other are people who will do nothing to prevent withdrawal of their benefits. The rest of us come in between.
We have seen the problem with modern government in Chapter 2. It is still, as every ancient government, mostly an armed minority occupying territory and rewarding its supporters with loot taken from the inhabitants of the territory. Of course, every modern government, as every ancient government, is on the side of the angels. It is either God’s gift to humans, or history’s favorite child. This, the postmodernists tell us, is a “narrative of power.” Every armed minority has a story to tell that justifies its ascent to power and eternal continuance in power. The trouble with government is that it is not social. The idea of humans as social animals is that within society the rule of force does not apply. But every government is armed against its people, giving the lie to this conceit.
Then there is business. We saw in Chapter 3 that in the last two centuries business has increased the wealth of nations and their peoples by almost two orders of magnitude. It has transformed the world. And yet business is a monstrous twin of government. The larger businesses are organized like armies, with charismatic CEOs leading their highly trained troops on long marches to develop new products, and concentrating their forces in pitched battles for market share.
Some people have experienced the coming of capitalism as a new birth of oppression; others have experienced it as an astonishing prodigy, the creator of untold comforts and riches.
But perhaps there is more in common between government and business than we have hitherto perceived. Perhaps both government and business are best understood as the ego journeys of their great leaders. Great egos come into the world and burst their bounds. They cannot stand still and just work in the garden; they have to form a movement; they are compelled to rally people to their colors. They must march across the world and conquer its lands, and then distribute the booty among their followers. But now the index of wealth is not land, but capital. Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed; land used to be capital, its control used to be the basis of human wealth and prosperity, and so the great land conquerors and the great landowners, the magnates of patrimonial estates, were the great men of history. Now it is industrial might that is the foundation of wealth and prosperity, and so the great industrial magnates should be the great men of history. Only they aren’t.
Two hundred years ago, Thomas Piketty tells us in Capital in the Twenty-first Century, people counted wealth in the perpetual rent from a landed estate. That was how you reckoned wealth and power: in the annuity, the annual income from a great agricultural estate, its ability to deliver food and grain. Today we reckon economic wealth in the opposite way from our ancestors. We reckon wealth in the capital valuations of the stock market, which is nothing more than the present value of the annual income of a capital asset from all future years brought back to the present. And what is this wealth? It is the ability to deliver products and services to millions of consumers across the world.
We ought to say that, in the old days, people lived under rentalism; today we live under capitalism.
In either case, the organization of production is not much different. At the apex of the agricultural pyramid is the great freebooter, lord of all he surveys and whatever new lands he may wish to conquer. People that know what is good for them rally to the great and powerful one and become his followers. By their loyalty and service they get to enjoy a part of the revenues and rents from the great empire. They are, of course, freeloaders. They do not achieve anything remarkable or deserving; they merely provide the support that every great lord must accumulate, they are cogs in his machine of agricultural power.
At the apex of the industrial pyramid is another great freebooter, lord of his capital empire and lord of all the productive employees he leads. Where the great agricultural freebooter lived by conquering and looting neighboring states, the capital freebooter lives by creative destruction, surprising the world with new products and services that put the mature corporations out of business. People that know what is good for them, MBAs and such, rally to the great and powerful one and become his followers. By their loyalty and service they get to enjoy a share of the enterprise’s capital valuation in the stock market. They are, of course, freeloaders. They do not achieve anything remarkable or deserving; they merely provide the support that every great capitalist must accumulate; they are cogs in his machine of industrial power.
As we have seen, a funny thing on the way from agricultural power to industrial power. Not just economic power but political power also transformed itself. In the agricultural era the great landed magnates possessed not just great food-producing estates but political power, and all political institutions reflected this reality. By the middle of the 19th century as the industrial revolution had clearly changed the channels of economic power many people expected and feared that the capitalists would seize the throne of political power and rule over the world as the landed warriors had done. Many people saw this and were horrified.
But they were disappointed. Instead of the capitalists bidding for political power to replace the old landed magnates, something unexpected happened when the new political elite emerged out of the social turmoil of the industrial revolution. As you might expect, the new elite recruited from sons of the bourgeoisie. But this new and emerging elite, instead of supporting the economic power of their fathers, created an over-under political coalition that declared war on the capitalists by stigmatizing and marginalizing the capitalist achievements. Instead of capitalists forming patron-client networks by attracting and cultivating the support of their natural clients as the old landed rulers had done, the new political elite, the educated sons of the capitalists, attracted support of the working class, the lower orders, and used their political power to tax the capitalists in order to reward their supporters in the working class.
We could say that the power elite of the new era split into two. In the old days political power and economic power were one and the same. Land was wealth and land was power, so the landed magnates ruled both the polity and the economy. But the industrial era is different. The industrial magnates concentrate on dominating the economy, while the political elite works to dominate the polity. In the old days the landed magnates used their own wealth to build and maintain their political power. Today it is the political magnates use the wealth of the economic sector to build and maintain their political power in opposition to the economic power.
There seems to be something missing, and it is not hard to discover what that is. The missing ingredient is human sympathy. There is no human sympathy outside the boundary of the ruling elite or the corporate suite. The political elite cannot conceive of anything beyond its power project to occupy and rule its territory and its people. It has no sympathy for people beyond its band of supporters. The corporate elite cannot conceive of anything beyond its project of economic gain. It flatters its customers because it must; it coddles its employees because it makes them more productive. What do the great politicians think of, beyond winning the next election by offering a chunk of the national income to their supporters? What do they care of dependency and idleness and family breakdown? What does the great corporate CEO think of but new ways to surprise us with new products and services, things that nobody ever thought of before, that will turn the commercial world upside down and make a fortune for him and his venture capitalist backers? What do they care about the good productive people find themselves out of a job, as great old corporations and millions of jobs bite the dust in the creative destruction of the marketplace?
That is the challenge of the new millennium. In a world of great political, economic, and administrative systems, which objectify the world into a mechanical process, how do we restore the notion of humans as social animals, living things that do not live by mechanical or physical force and interaction and exchange, but with the social glue that Georg Simmel described: the practice of faithfulness, “the inertia of the soul,”4 and gratitude, a supplement to the legal order, a “moral memory of mankind,”5 that personalizes the relentless objectivity of the exchange culture.
The question therefore is: how can power, economic or political, be restrained? How can freebooters be kept in their home ports and freeloaders turned into productive citizens? How can politicians be restrained from simply bribing the voters with promises of loot? Can ordinary people be persuaded to take the responsibility for work upon themselves, or was the Occidental approach to work described by Eric Hoffer a mere interlude in an eternal human distaste for work?
If there is an answer that curbs the freebooters and freeloaders while still permitting human freedom and autonomy and celebrating individual human responsibility for contributing to society we know what science has to say about it. Science’s answer is one word: religion. It is religion that has provided the answer to the problem of the freeloader. It is to recent notions developed by social scientists about religion as the natural social prophylactic for the control of freebooting and freeloading that we now turn.
1Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct, Penguin Press, p. 48.
2Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change, Harper Colophon, 1964, p. 28.
3Ibid., p. 30.
4Kurt H. Wolff, ed., The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Free Press, 1950, p. 380.
5Ibid., p. 388.
Government and the Technology of Power
If you scratch a social reformer, you will likely discover a plan for more government.
Business, Slavery, and Trust
Business is all about trust and relationship.
Humanity's Big Problem: Freebooters and Freeloaders
The modern welfare state encourages freeloaders.
The Bonds of Faith
No society known to anthropology or history lacked religion.
A Critique of Social Mechanics
The problem with human society reduced to system.
The Paradox of Individualism
Is individualism the gospel of selfishness or something else?
From Multitude to Civil Society
The larger the government, the smaller the society.
The Answer is Civil Society
In between the separated powers.
The Greater Separation of Powers
If you want to limit power then you must limit power.
Conservatism Three by Three
Conservatism, political, economics, and cultural.
The Culture of Involvement
Imagining lives without the welfare state
The Poor Without the Welfare State
Can the poor thrive without the welfare state?
The Middle Class Without The Welfare State
How would the middle class live without all those middle-class entitlements?
Liberals and the Welfare State
Liberals, the ruling class of the administrative welfare state.
From Freeloaders to Free Givers
The path to the future lies through moral movements.
The Real Meaning of Society
Broadening the horizon of cooperation in the last best hope of man on earth.
When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of agesthey seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990
In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State
Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures
The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since
1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and
philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West
Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its
characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then,
once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
When we received Christ, Phil added, all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh
The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital