Economic Opportunity Needs A Moral Dimension

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay he first published in the June 1994 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”


In every election year, expect to be barraged with rhetoric about “getting the country moving again,” “creating jobs, jobs, jobs,” and “stimulating the economy.”

Politicians love to promise the future and ignore their own handiwork of the past. They typically spend much more time concocting new schemes for intervention than they spend searching for old ones that deserve to be repealed.

What really deserves our attention are those specific barriers to economic opportunity erected by government—regulations, taxes, licensure laws, unfunded mandates, building and zoning codes, special privileges for organized labor, subsidies to business, chronic budget deficits that consume needed capital, a welfare system that puts a premium on idleness and a penalty on work, and an education monopoly that fails to teach children as it vacuums their parents’ wallets, to name a few.

Dozens of studies have shown that excessively restrictive zoning laws, building codes, and property taxes constitute the greatest obstacles to affordable housing for the poor. Minimum wage laws, by making it illegal to employ people whose skills are worth less than government decrees, keep hundreds of thousands from getting a start in the job market. Endless regulations designed to curtail entry into markets from trucking to taxis freeze out many a would-be entrepreneur from creating new businesses.

I’m not talking about basic laws which prevent or punish harm to others. I’m talking about the primary social disease of our age—government beyond its proper bounds, playing Robin Hood, Santa Claus, and Mother Hen all at the same time, inflicting real damage to real people who have victimized no one. Economists, at least, are increasingly taking a critical eye to such policies.

It must be understood, however, that economic analysis will not by itself make the case for ridding ourselves of these man-made obstructions. It is powerful, but still not enough, to simply add up the numbers and show how many jobs are erased by particular actions of government. It is not enough to produce graphs and models that plot the fluctuations in Gross National Product.

What is sorely needed in the discussion is a recognition of the moral backwardness that so many of these barriers to economic opportunity represent. Dismantling the barricade requires that we who advocate freedom of enterprise seize the high ground. We must appeal to what most people instinctively know is right, not just what makes the cash register sing. We must learn to speak of the deleterious actions of government in terms of trampled rights, broken dreams, and ruined lives.

For instance, when the city of Detroit in Michigan imposes—as it does—a tax burden that is several times the average burden in Michigan municipalities, that is not simply bad economics. It is an affront to every citizen of that city who wants the best for his family, who wants simply a chance to be productive. Those high taxes should evoke visions of hungry children, of a boarded-up business that was once someone’s dream, of homes torn apart because of the breadwinner’s inability to pay the bills of irresponsible politicians.

Why is it that people who go to work for government as officeholders or bureaucrats are known as “public servants”—even when highly paid? Why isn’t “public servant” a term reserved for those entrepreneurial heroes in the private sector who create jobs, invent machines, cure illnesses, build businesses, serve customers, and pay the bills of government through their taxes? When the barriers erected by “public servants” crush the self-reliance of enterprising citizens, where is the outcry of righteous indignation from the public or the press?

What taxers and regulators do to people and their business dreams and what countless other acts of government inflict upon people every day is morally repugnant. Such deeds are throwbacks to less enlightened times when the common thief and the uncommon prince were indistinguishable but for their robes.

The campaign to restore our liberties and enhance our economic opportunities must incorporate a personal, moral dimension at its core. A law which suffocates the aspirations of enterprising men and women is more than bad economics. In a free society, it ought to be a moral outrage.

About the author

Lawrence W. Reed wrote 32 articles on this blog.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.

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Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.