Bill Maher and America’s Broken Wagon

In 2013, Bill Maher famously said, “In 1968, it was 51 to 1, people on disability to people who worked. In 2001, not that long ago, it was 23 to 1. Now it’s 13 to 1. 13 to 1, who are on disability. Of course, some of that is real. We are an overworked, overstressed, polluted, ripped off and lied to people. I mean, obviously there are some people who really do have disability. But 13 to 1, you know, it just seems like there are less people pulling the wagon and more people in the wagon. And at some point the wagon is going to break.”

Keep in mind that Bill Maher, comedian and social program host, is a hard-core Obama supporter. In that context, it’s tempting to say: Hell has frozen over.

But not so fast. It’s the wagon analogy that’s flawed. The analogy of a “wagon” implies private ownership. If we’re talking about frontier families who settled the American West, these wagons were mobile and private homes. Individuals and families did not settle the West in one huge collective swoop. They went individually, with differing attitudes, strategies, differing levels of motivation and tools — some resulting in success, some not.

While it’s true that no privately owned wagon can be successfully operated if all or most of the people on that wagon don’t do any labor, it doesn’t follow that America is one gigantic wagon.

Even in criticizing the welfare-entitlement state which Maher correctly observes is growing, he’s implying the very premise that makes continued growth of that welfare-state justified, necessary and inevitable: The wagon premise.

To claim that millions of Americans are all on one gigantic “wagon” is the operating premise of collectivism, or socialism. Nobody owns this wagon, according to this view. It’s simply owned by everyone, and everyone is responsible for its well-being.

In such a metaphor, there’s no notion of private property, of personal boundaries, or of separate space, including property rights.

According to this wagon analogy, if you earn, let’s say, a billion dollars, that billion dollars automatically belongs to everybody on the wagon equally — simply because they’re on the wagon. There’s no concept of somebody honestly creating a successful enterprise and then building his own wagon, doing with that money whatever he sees fit.

Maher’s complaint is perhaps laudable for its honesty, to the extent that he willingly observes that more and more people are dependent on the government — that is to say, their fellow travelers on the wagon — than ever before. You won’t find any of the politicians he ardently supports ever admitting such a fact. But these are the lamentations of a disillusioned or cranky socialist-collectivist, not somebody who decries the lack of individual and personal property rights only found in a completely capitalist, private-property order.

Notice Maher’s comments elsewhere in the same monologue: “Like the Octomom. California pays — we pay to feed and clothe and spay and neuter her children and she’s not giving back to society.”

His objection isn’t that people are being forced to support this “Octomom” against their will. His objection is that she’s not “giving back.” But why should she? She is forcibly handed this income because, she’s told, it’s an entitlement. Why shouldn’t she believe this, since it’s given to her as a right? And if she believes it’s her due, then why should she concern herself with giving anything “back”? The most benevolent thing you can say about a view such as Maher’s is that it’s naive and foolish. That’s why I call him a cranky and disillusioned socialist.

By definition, all socialists, leftists and collectivists — people who see life as one gigantic “wagon” — have to become bitter and angry, at least when they think about human society as a whole. What they propose is morally wrong, because it involves coercion, and it requires indiscriminate redistribution of wealth, against people’s better judgment. But it also doesn’t work on its own terms. Fools liker Maher, Obama, and many others actually expect someone who’s handed something for nothing –as a right, and an entitlement — to feel a compulsion go “give back.” It’s beyond ridiculous.

The only way out of the entitlement state is to get out of the entitlement state mentality. That means we stop thinking of people as part of one gigantic, collective covered wagon “family.” Such a view implies — and often openly states, as Obama does — that we are all each other’s moral and physical keepers. Society and government exist, according to such a view, to legally require that each produce according to his ability, and each be given to according to his need. The more capable you are, the more you owe others. This is a morally vicious and economically impossible fallacy. Every form of socialism (and this includes “Obamaism”) fails every time it’s tried; and it should, because it’s wrong.

Collectivim’s absence in the early years of the American republic enabled that nation to be the most prosperous and fast growing inventive society in human history, by far. We still ride on the momentum of that success today, even as we lie to ourselves that we’re really on a “wagon” and that by redistributing wealth, talent, dollars and justice, we’ll somehow end up with a result different from the one Bill Maher bemoans.

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