The Passive Voice: Who, exactly, “needs” to reward the wealthy for their “risks”?

“Consider all of your words. Many of them name deeds or states that are possible only to human beings. When you use them, attach them to persons. Give names and addresses wherever possible.” ~ Richard Mitchell, “The Underground Grammarian”

On facebook today, a warm and empathetic statement from a socialist/anarchist (I think) friend of mine, whom I respect greatly for his willingness to talk through the tough issues and consider opposing points of view:

Who, exactly, "needs" to reward the wealthy for their "risks"?

Who, exactly, “needs” to reward the wealthy for their “risks”?

We libertarians catch a lot of flak, much of it well deserved, for being insufficiently empathetic with the poor and their plight. I therefore try to approach comments like this with due care. Even so, economic reality is what it is. I can’t change it, and I have to tell it like it is.

In this particular instance, my friend, or the person whom he heard talk, has obscured economic reality through the passive voice. I encounter this unfortunate obscurant frequently. It radiates like a beacon in my mind’s eye, revealing the presence of muddled and incomplete thought. 

When I was in grade school, Microsoft Word‘s spelling and grammar check would flag every instance of the passive voice as grammatically problematic. In those days, I would read and re-read the flagged sentences, totally puzzled as to what the error might be.  Because this was before the invention of Google to interpret error messages, I would leave the sentences uncorrected, and with hankering that I did not write them as well as I potentially could have.

I’m not sure exactly when the grammar wizards at Microsoft changed their policy, but at least as of version 2007, Word no longer flags passively voiced sentences by default. The user may manually enable the flagging of passively voiced sentences, but not before traversing at least three levels of the options menu underworld to find the toggle switch. This was a grievous error on the part of Microsoft’s grammar wizards, who, through their ubiquitous word processing program, have become the effective architects of accepted grammar. Microsoft has given unhindered license to express muddled and incomplete thought. I’ve found that opponents of free markets constantly take this license when describing markets’ alleged deficiencies.

When was the last time you’ve seen this warning?

A great professor of mine, ironically an art professor, at last taught me the value of preferring the active voice over the passive voice. He assigned an article from The Underground Grammarian entitled The Polyphemus Fallacy. Since graduating college, I must have referred back to this one assignment more than all of the other things I’ve learned in college combined. In this one assignment, I believe, is the key to solving just about any social problem: One must properly identify the culprits. Here is the main idea, in brief:

… Be always mindful of what our founder used to call the Polyphemus Fallacy. It appears when, by an unconsidered choice of words, exclusively human powers or attributes are implied where none can exist. The name comes, of course, from the sad story of Polyphemus, blinded, as he thought, by No-Man. When he called upon the other Cyclopes to avenge his hurt, what else could they do but remind him that he who is injured by no one can hardly expect redress.

Consider all of your words. Many of them name deeds or states that are possible only to human beings. When you use them, attach them to persons. Give names and addresses wherever possible. When you assert that there should be more love in the world, or more peace, all you do is praise yourself as virtuous, in favor of good and against evil. Be specific. To whom, exactly, is your admonition directed? If you require yourself to say that Henry should love Martha, or that Oscar, who is white, should live in peace and fellowship with Hal, who is black, then you will find yourself obliged to make some sense, for someone who does not think those propositions self-evident will want to ask some questions. …

Applying this simple, sage advice to my friend’s comment: How do wealthy people come to be rewarded for anything they do? Only people can reward other people. So who is out there rewarding the wealthy, and why?

Generally, in free markets, the mass of consumers reward wealthy people by giving them money in exchange for some good or service. The money is the reward. With this understanding, the next question almost asks itself: In free markets, do the mass of consumers need to reward wealthy people for their risks? Just as the question almost asks itself, so too does it almost answer itself: No. Generally, consumers do not need to reward wealthy people for their risks, and consumers often do not.

Most businesses fail within five years of launching. This eHow article puts the figure conservatively at 56%, although folklore places the figure much higher, often at 90% or more, as the article explains. Any time a new business fails, it is necessarily because consumers have chosen, en masse, not to reward the proprietor for his or her risks. Whether to reward any particular wealthy person for his or her risk is really a simple choice on the part of each consumer. In fact, to the extent that a consumer’s circumstances restrain this choice, it is almost invariably in the direction of not rewarding those business owners who fail to offer their wares to the public affordably.

Of course it is nearly impossible for a consumer to live his or her entire life without rewarding some wealthy people for their “risks” at some point. This is because, generally, some substantial command over resources and capital is necessary procure the machines and hire the labor that is in turn necessary to produce goods and services in sufficient quantity and value to merit a reward. Therefore, wealthy people are more likely to offer for sale the goods and services that make for the most comfortable living.

But the free market is not exclusively the domain of the wealthy. Even the poorest have time and talents to offer. Now, I won’t speculate as to the risks my friend had in mind when he wrote his comment. If I did so, I could only come across as a out-of-touch, pampered, middle-class white boy. I’ll cede the point over to my friend that the risks are grave and the rewards are few. Whatever risks my friend is talking about, they evidently are not of the type that win lucrative rewards—but why aren’t they? Have a look at this video clip of the rabbit lady from Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. Here it is:

This is woman is relatively poor, and yet she has taken a risk. She essentially opened a home butcher shop. She sold rabbit meat. She had customers who rewarded her for her labor. It was a modest business, for sure, but in time it could have grown. It didn’t. Instead, government interlopers shut her business down because she could not afford the variety of expensive equipment that they demanded she have. Only the wealthy can afford take “risks” on such things as buildings with washable walls, washable floors, an unbreakable light, a scale that weighs properly, three sinks, etc. The poor can not lawfully take such risks. Because government regulators routinely preclude the poor from taking such potentially lucrative risks, they usually find themselves in even riskier, even less lucrative situations. Many pay dearly for it. That is wrong.

As a libertarian, I support the right of the poor to take the same kinds of risks that their wealthier counterparts take: the kind that is likely to earn rewards. As a libertarian, I support free markets. I’ll leave you again with the brilliant Walter Williams, who argues that, “the rules of the game determine the outcome of the game.”

Epilogue:

My friend responded briefly to my comment, above:

Hmm... That wasn't too well thought out.

Hmm… That wasn’t too well thought out.

See what I did here? Right off the bat, I took this conversation in the wrong direction by questioning the value of a worker’s labor. That’s a huge no-no. I’ll lose face over that. I’ll learn one of these days that the value of a worker’s labor is whatever the worker says it is. End of story. To suggest otherwise is to instigate a revolution—and nobody wants that.

I should have simply corrected my friend. Yes, there are people who reward the wealthy for their risks. They’re called consumers.

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