The Invisible Palm and Multiplication of Labor - By Catfarmer - Price of Liberty
The Invisible Palm
and Multiplication of Labor

By Catfarmer
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February 03 , 2004

"Division of labor" is one of those expressions that people use and politically misuse so frequently that its conceptual significance gets left in the dirt. Division of labor makes my life easier in many ways: I earn money doing something I'm reasonably good at, and hire other people to do things I'm not good at. I hire an auto mechanic to fix my car, and a plumber to install my washing machine. I buy fruit and vegetables at the grocery store, so I don't have to grow them myself or do without. People design and manufacture products from cars and computers to light bulbs and can openers that I can buy easily and inexpensively, without learning how to make a light bulb. People learn skills and sell their products or services - a spontaneous arrangement that benefits us all in many ways.

Too little use of division of labor will make my life difficult, as will too much reliance on it. While I may not want to grow my own fruits or vegetables under ideal circumstances, I'd feel uncomfortable in a living situation where I was unable to grow some food during a famine. I may not want a career as an auto mechanic, but knowing how to change a flat tire will leave me less dependent in an emergency. Maybe I hate to cook or sew, but if I never learn how to prepare a simple meal or replace a button I'm more dependent on other people than I personally want to be. I may not wish to make a hobby of plumbing, but I want to know how to shut off the water in case a pipe bursts or the toilet overflows.

Thanks to the menagerie of bureaucrats known as government the more I rely on division of labor, the more subtly expenses begin to multiply. If I buy furniture or a car or a coat, the invisible palm of government reaches out to collect sales tax. When I buy furniture polish, gasoline or a lint brush, the invisible palm of government collects sales tax. That unseen palm may have lined itself with sales tax many times along the path these items traveled to the market - taxes on imported materials, taxes on fuels used to transport the materials, taxes on wages earned by laborers, property taxes on warehouses and factories.

My labors may multiply in various ways. I can work more hours or take a second job to meet expenses, or choose to rely less on division of labor and do things that I don't do efficiently like fix my own leaky plumbing, grow a variety of vegetables, or make myself a coat. I may evade the ubiquitous costs of government as far as possible, or absorb those expenses without thinking about them more than necessary, and most likely will arrive at some compromise between the two strategies. In any case, my labors have multiplied in ways so subtle as to elude detection unless I look closely. Alternatively, I may prefer to buy used cars, clothes and furniture or barter for them, or do without.

The men who would govern us are pros at cons to deprive us of voluntary divisions of labor, setting up fines, licenses, regulatory agencies and even prohibitions to serve as "tollbooths" between persons A and B. First go get in line to pay the man at window C.

Politicians love to take credit for creating jobs, and they do make lots of work for people. What kind of jobs are they creating, and what substance do they create jobs from? Do politicians wave a magic wand like Cinderella's fairy godmother and create jobs out of a magic pumpkin patch? No, of course not. Think about the kinds of jobs that government creates, and how those new employment statistics impact other areas of the "labor force."

Government-created job #1: The business of war. War makes some men very rich, but to say it "stimulates the economy" is like saying "having a gun held to the back of your head stimulates thinking processes." Sure it does, but a nice cup of coffee and a hot breakfast would suffice instead. War creates jobs for soldiers, and contracts of different types for various industries who in turn may hire new workers. War creates jobs for doctors and nurses to tend to wounded or dying soldiers. War benefits morticians and coffin makers, perhaps. War doesn't benefit bars or restaurants where soldiers eat and drink in peacetime, or the many businesses - music stores, clothing shops, beauty salons, realtors, auto dealerships, et cetera - that profit more from peace and prosperity.

War takes from some parts of the economy to give to others, and parts of the economy that don't find war stimulating may find wartime suffocating. War creates jobs by destroying lives. War creates jobs by ruining "infrastructures" that subsequently require reconstruction. War creates jobs by cultivating enemies to guard against. War is the only popular wealth redistribution scheme I can think of that does not pretend to benefit the poor, with the possible exception of political campaigns.

Government-created job #2: The petty tyrant. Some time ago I read an article about a city that spent considerably more to install and maintain parking meters than the meters took inů a few meter maid jobs created, at what cost to local businesses? No job is too small for government to create, and no price too large to stick taxpayers with. Petty tyrant jobs entail enforcement of rules: you can identify a petty tyrant by heavy reliance on variations of the statement "I don't make the rules, it's just my job to enforce them."

Government-created job #3: The administrator. Unlike petty tyrants, administrators take pride in their ability to allow for circumstances and bend rules. They consult rules, but don't take dictation or parrot phrases from the rulebook. Because administrators possess more capacity for reason and independent speech, you can sometimes reason with them - they behave less predictably than petty tyrants, and can be more infuriating to deal with.

Government creates jobs to maintain a coercively imposed form of law and order, as apologists for government (even limited government) explain. Your idea of law and order or mine need not apply, save for the many available government positions from which we may gain power to impose them on other people. (If that doesn't appeal to you, I like you already!) Unlimited liberty frightens people, so administrative and petty tyrant jobs serve to ensure our safety from the bogeyman of limitless liberty. Liberty, however, imposes natural limits on us. If we fail to abide by limits voluntarily and trespass on the liberty of others, people naturally react defensively to protect their limits.

Most people observe limits to liberty in self-interest freely without anyone forcing them to do so. Not because people are inherently good any more than they are inherently bad: nor does judging the actions of people within their sphere of individual liberty serve any purpose but to justify interference within someone else's limits. Unsurprisingly, people who gravitate toward positions of government power show little willingness to observe healthy limits for themselves or respect anyone else's.

Peaceful exchanges between free individuals resulting from natural divisions of labor ease our labors and enrich our existences without jeopardizing our abilities to develop and exercise skills necessary for survival. I may learn enough about medicine to care for myself or loved ones at home, learn to use a gun in self-defense, or acquire carpentry skills to put an addition on my home, except that the state chooses to regulate activities within the sphere of my personal jurisdiction. By requiring me to submit to an unnatural, artificially imposed division of labor it complicates my labors. Not content with stealing 40 or 50% of my income in visible ways, it also extracts invisible costs beyond measure and imposes time consuming, arduous tasks in performing such strange rituals as filing taxes, applying for licenses and permits, or serving on a jury to judge the actions of some poor soul who ran afoul of a law that quite possibly violated his liberty anyway.

In her essay "Anarchism: What it really stands for" Emma Goldman observes, "Crime is naught but misdirected energy. So long as every institution of today, economic, political, social, and moral, conspires to misdirect human energy into wrong channels; so long as most people are out of place doing the things they hate to do, living a life they loathe to live, crime will be inevitable, and all the laws on the statutes can only increase, but never do away with, crime." Only under the aegis of government are robbery, torture, murder, extortion, enslavement, or kidnapping lawful. No wonder we need limits on government.

Civilizations crumble when governments weigh heavily on the backs of laborers - people grow so tired and dispirited that they despair and cease to labor. A state that overtaxes labor and rewards laziness only hastens its own demise, and people who blame laziness on human nature only justify servitude to the state. Self-interest opposes laziness as vehemently as the state opposes self-interest. Governments only expand so far before they become unbearable and collapse for lack of support. When will they ever learn?

When will we learn to expect more from ourselves and less from governments? Would anyone like to prove Darwin's theory of evolution has a point? At least creationists can blame Satan for the mess we're in - isn't that better than apologizing for governments?

Editor's note: See more from Emma Goldman here.

Catfarmer has her own website too! Lots of interesting things to see.

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