BY HENRY HAZLITT
Economics In One Lesson, Chapter 9
When, after every great war, it is proposed to demobilize the armed forces, there is always a great fear that there will not be enough jobs for these forces and that in consequence they will be unemployed. It is true that, when millions of men are suddenly released, it may require time for private industry to reabsorb them—though what has been chiefly remarkable in the past has been the speed, rather than the slowness, with which this was accomplished. The fears of unemployment arise because people look at only one side of the process.
They see soldiers being turned loose on the labor market. Where is the “purchasing power” going to come from to employ them? If we assume that the public budget is being balanced, the answer is simple. The government will cease to support the soldiers. But the taxpayers will be allowed to retain the funds that were previously taken from them in order to support the soldiers. And the tax payers will then have additional funds to buy additional goods. Civilian demand, in other words, will be increased, and will give employment to the added labor force represented by the soldiers.
If the soldiers have been supported by an unbalanced budget—that is, by government borrowing and other forms of deficit financing—the case is somewhat different. But that raises a different question: we shall consider the effects of deficit financing in a later chapter. It is enough to recognize that deficit financing is irrelevant to the point that has just been made; for if we assume that there is any advantage in a budget deficit, then precisely the same budget deficit could be maintained as before by simply reducing taxes by the amount previously spent in supporting the wartime army.
But the demobilization will not leave us economically just where we were before it started. The soldiers previously supported by civilians will not become merely civilians supported by other civilians. They will become self-supporting civilians. If we assume that the men who would otherwise have been retained in the armed forces are no longer needed for defense, then their retention would have been sheer waste. They would have been unproductive. The taxpayers, in return for supporting them, would have got nothing. But now the taxpayers turn over this part of their funds to them as fellow civilians in return for equivalent goods or services. Total national production, the wealth of everybody, is higher.
The same reasoning applies to civilian government officials whenever they are retained in excessive numbers and do not perform services for the community reasonably equivalent to the remuneration they receive. Yet whenever any effort is made to cut down the number of unnecessary officeholders the cry is certain to be raised that this action is “deflationary.” Would you remove the “purchasing power” from these officials? Would you injure the landlords and tradesmen who depend on that purchasing power? You are simply cutting down “the national income” and helping to bring about or intensify a depression.
Once again the fallacy comes from looking at the effects of this action only on the dismissed officeholders themselves and on the particular tradesmen who depend upon them. Once again it is forgotten that, if these bureaucrats are not retained in office, the taxpayers will be permitted to keep the money that was formerly taken from them for the support of the bureaucrats. Once again it is forgotten that the taxpayers’ income and purchasing power go up by at least as much as the income and purchasing power of the former officeholders go down. If the particular shopkeepers who formerly got the business of these bureaucrats lose trade, other shopkeepers elsewhere gain at least as much. Washington is less prosperous, and can, perhaps, support fewer stores; but other towns can support more.
Once again, however, the matter does not end there. The country is not merely as well off without the superfluous officeholders as it would have been had it retained them. It is much better off. For the officeholders must now seek private jobs or set up private businesses. And the added purchasing power of the taxpayers, as we noted in the case of the soldiers, will encourage this. But the officeholders can take private jobs only by supplying equivalent services to those who provide the jobs—or, rather, to the customers of the employers who provide the jobs. Instead of being parasites, they become productive men and women.
I must insist again that in all this I am not talking of public officeholders whose services are really needed. Necessary policemen, firemen, street cleaners, health officers, judges, legislators and executives perform productive services as important as those of anyone in private industry. They make it possible for private industry to function in an atmosphere of law, order, freedom and peace. But their justification consists in the utility of their services. It does not consist in the “purchasing power” they possess by virtue of being on the public payroll.
This “purchasing power” argument is, when one considers it seriously, fantastic. It could just as well apply to a racketeer or a thief who robs you. After he takes your money he has more purchasing power. He supports with it bars, restaurants, night clubs, tailors, perhaps automobile workers. But for every job his spending provides, your own spending must provide one less, because you have that much less to spend. Just so the tax payers provide one less job for every job supplied by the spending of officeholders. When your money is taken by a thief, you get nothing in return. When your money is taken through taxes to support needless bureaucrats, precisely the same situation exists. We are lucky, indeed, if the needless bureaucrats are mere easy-going loafers. They are more likely today to be energetic reformers busily discouraging and disrupting production.
When we can find no better argument for the retention of any group of officeholders than that of retaining their purchasing power, it is a sign that the time has come to get rid of them.
Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.