Who Is the Enemy?

Who is the enemy? This graphic floating around the liberty-sphere offers an answer:

This meme essentially offers a libertarian theory of class warfare. We have a big class of good guys — the virtuous proletariat: earners, entrepreneurs, protectors — and a small class of bad guys — the exploitative ruling class: predators, cronies, rent-seekers. The makers vs. the takers.

This is a nice, neat way to cleave society into good and evil, but let’s see where this logic takes us.

First, most people pay taxes, and most people receive benefits. This chart from Heritage shows average benefits received and average taxes paid, per person, for each income group:

perperson

Everyone makes, and everyone takes (though not equally). Are we all good guys or all bad guys?

Even if you split society between net recipients vs. net contributors, you wouldn’t get anything like the Right Enemy meme — in fact, it would look like the opposite: a thin slice of good guys (mostly on the top), a giant block of bad guys (mostly on the bottom), and a chunk in the middle who could be either most years.

But we’re not done finding enemies yet. Of that slice of good guys, you have to take out all the “cronies and rent seekers.” Who qualifies?

If anyone counts, surely it’s government employees. That’s 4.1 million federal employees, 14.3 million full-time state and local employees, and 4.9 million part-time state and local employees. That’s 23.3 million total — teachers, mailmen, soldiers, and the rest — about 15 percent of all employed Americans.

And bear in mind, in these Venn diagrams of evil: state employees make on average 25 percent more than private workers and federal employees on average earn 78 percent more, so a greater number of these are coming out of those remaining good guys from earlier.

We should probably also count government contractors, but unfortunately there’s no list, even at the federal level. The federal government spends over $500 billion a year on contract work, but it’s not clear how many people are employed by it. The top 30 military contractors consume about a third of the federal contract budget and employ about 1.8 million people (though not all work on government projects).

And then there’s all the other companies who extract subsidies and their employees. Direct corporate welfare in the federal budget alone totals $100 billion a year. Farming, oil, alternative energy, housing, transit, medicine, higher and lower education, and even the beloved “small businesses” of America, they all line up at the gravy train of federal grants, “investments,” and other “job creating” handouts.

This doesn’t even get into all the tax breaks and incentives carved out for special interests, or the vast but unnoticed system of corporate welfare from cities and states, that businesses and their employees lobby for and support. And it’s impossible to even address all of the rent-seeking by regulation (although it is truly vast) that helps prop up countless businesses.

Now, we can go after the rent-seekers in industries protected by occupational licensing — you know, doctors, lawyers, florists, interior decorators, hair stylists… In fact, one in three Americans now works in a government licensed occupation — roughly 50 million people. Now, it’s terrible that they had to overcome unnecessary hurdles to just get permission to work. But the reason that 100+ plus occupations now require state licenses is that those workers lobbied to require special licenses to compete with them — raising the barrier to entry, restricting competition, and increasing their income.

We should probably throw union workers in here, too, given all the labor laws that confer many special privileges and protections on them. Unions encompass 6.7 percent of the private sector (7.5 million people) and 35 percent of the public sector (7.2 million people).

There’s some overlap here. 41 percent of government employees are licensed, and 44 percent of union employees are licensed. But fully 25 percent of the private and non-union sectors (vastly bigger) are licensed up, too. Additionally, the probability of being in a licensed profession goes up with education level: 40 percent of those with post-college education are licensed, versus just 11 percent with less than high school. More of those good guy, net-contributors in high-earning households are being contaminated with rent-seeking.

Then there’s people with subsidized loans and subsidized insurance. 40 percent of occupied housing units in America have a mortgage (and homeowners tend to be richer). About a quarter of new mortgages get subsidized insurance from the FHA, but they all get special tax breaks for homeowners to deduct mortgage payments and property taxes from their income taxes. In fact, the more expensive your house, the bigger the tax break. More rich people biting the dust, more enemies stacking up.

Then there’s college student loans — 40 million people there, all of them by definition more educated and thus higher income.

Then there’s subsidized ACA health insurance — maybe another 10 million people there, including those earning up to $47,000 a year for individuals or up $97,000 for a family of four.

And let us not forget the small banks and the big financial giants — nearly all bailed out by the Fed, or TARP, or the FDIC.

The number of Right Enemies — takers, cronies, rent-extractors — is proliferating. 60 percent here, 30 percent there, millions upon millions in contaminated industries and occupations, countless coveted special tax breaks and handouts.

But wait, let’s back up. Maybe we should define the bad guys by what they believe instead of how they benefit from government. After all, a doctor might oppose licensing but still benefit from it.

Sorry, but belief whittles down the good guys even more. Old people favor Social Security, but so do the young. The poor favor redistribution, but so do the rich. Soldiers favor military spending, but so do civilians. Industries favor tariffs, but the consuming public does too. People’s political beliefs are often worse from a libertarian perspective than their actions.

It’s possible to phrase questions in a certain way that can radically change people’s answers, but that just proves that people don’t know very much, don’t have real opinions, and their expressed beliefs don’t mean much. If the Right Enemy becomes a True Ally just by tweaking the wording, she’s not really much of either.

And on top of all this, we must consider time. People change. An entrepreneur may have taken subsidies at one point but doesn’t now. A mother might not take benefits now, but she will when she loses her job. Over the whole of a person’s life, she will move between income levels, jobs, homes, occupations, and beliefs. Everyone changes, on every dimension — at what point does someone become part of the “enemy” class?

This is where class warfare inevitably takes you, regardless of your ideology. Your neat attempt to slice society into virtuous and predatory classes unravels, your enemies stack up, and your claim to lead a moral majority turns round on you.

If we’re not going to brand 99 percent of society as our enemies, we have to stop trying to cleave society into good and evil. Politics is not a Manichean struggle. It’s not a matter of identifying and defeating an enemy. The enemy is us. It always will be. Focusing on ideas, on innovations, and marginal improvements will surely get us farther than a jihad against the Right Enemy.

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Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.

View all posts by Daniel Bier

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