Friday, April 30, 2010

Ben Stein's mistake

Ben Stein is a smart guy.

He has a degree in economics from Columbia University and was valedictorian of his class at Yale Law School.

He has worked as a White House speechwriter and lawyer, an economist, a trial attorney and a teacher. He has written thirty books, some screenplays, and columns for highly respected newspapers and magazines.

This proves that you can be very, very smart and still be very, very wrong.

Today on Fox News, Ben Stein was asked by Megyn Kelly what he thought about President Obama's unscripted comment this week during remarks about financial reform. "I do think," the President of the United States said, "at a certain point you've made enough money."

Ben Stein said the president was totally wrong, and then he made the mistake. He explained why the president was wrong.

Mr. Stein said wealthy people keep what they need for a nice life and give the rest to charity.

That's a mistake, but not for the reason you're thinking. The statement may be completely true, and for the sake of argument let's assume that it is.

The mistake is in accepting the premise that wealth is immoral unless it benefits people who didn't earn it. That premise leads to the conclusion that government has a legitimate interest in taking wealth from some people in order to benefit other people. You can argue that morality is not the province of government, but you have already conceded that something immoral is happening and now you're in the position of arguing that government should do nothing about it.

This is exactly how the Republicans get into trouble with the voters. They concede the premise that wealth is immoral unless it benefits people who didn't earn it. The premise is embodied in the phrase "trickle-down economics" and in the Biblical admonition, often quoted by President George W. Bush, "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Here is a different argument to make against "I do think at a certain point you've made enough money": The statement justifies unlimited government power over individual rights and private property, and that is the end of freedom in America.

Under the U.S. Constitution, it is none of the government's business whether you need what you have. The power of the government is limited. Individual rights and private property are protected. That's what makes this a free country. Freedom is not an accident of history or a supernatural phenomenon that can't be fully understood by mortal men.

If the American people allow government officials to interpret the Constitution in a way that removes the limits on government power, our freedom will be a casualty of our good intentions.

George Washington warned us about this in his Farewell Address. "If in the opinion of the People, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong," our first president said in 1796, "let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed."

There's a reason Washington's portrait hangs in the Oval Office.

Under this administration, it's a dartboard.

Copyright 2010

Source note: Washington's Farewell Address can be read online in the archives of the University of Virginia at this link:

Editor's note: You might be interested in reading "Defending Capitalism" and "The Tyranny of the Children" at and in the 2008 post, "Barack Obama: 'We don't mind'" and the 2007 post, "Barack Obama explains socialism."