Where's Mine?

Today is Frederic Bastiat’s birthday. He was born in 1801 in Bayonne, France. To celebrate, I am rereading his 1850 tract, written mere months before his death, The Law. I came across this line:

Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.

Last week’s Democratic debate captures Bastiat’s observation quite well. Many of the candidates properly recognized some legal plunder going on in the law by legislators and special interest groups. But not a single one of them proposed stopping that legal plunder. Virtually all of them discussed ways in which they, or the people they supposedly represent, want to share in the legal plunder: whether it be “forgiving” various forms of debt, or taxing more of a certain group of people, or whatever.

A concrete example may help here: student loan debt “forgiveness” or “cancellation.” The idea is simple: people have loan debt, and it is substantial. Therefore, if the government were to, in its misguided philanthropy, forgive that debt, people will be made better off. Many of these people wrongfully took loans without understanding them or without fully being told the consequences of borrowing the money they did. Universities and the debt holders benefit from these loans, and many forms of legislation currently on the books promote this wealth transfer from students to universities and credit holders, not the least of which is the subsidized student loan program of the federal government.

But debt cancellation does not end this legal plunder. In fact, since no one proposed removing that legislation, the schema for legal plunder remains in place (this fact alone should raise questions about the effectiveness of debt cancellation even if the problems we are discussing weren’t here, but no one mentions it). Thus, no one is talking about ending the legal plunder, but ways to participate in it. Debt cancellation is a wealth transfer from one group, taxpayers without college degrees and debt holders and future college students, to another group: current student loan borrowers.

The “where’s mine?” mentality is very powerful. I suspect that in a democracy it will be even more difficult to eliminate legal plunder, with most politicians seeking to curry favor by promising “have yours!” The Democratic debates and the entirety of Trump’s trade policy reflects this point.