Out of the Mouths of Babes
Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life, by Steven Landsburg, New York: The Free Press, 230 pages, $24.00
H. L. Mencken described Henry Hazlitt as "one of the few economists in human history who could really write." Were the sage of Baltimore alive today, undoubtedly he would say the same of a professor from the University of Rochester, Steven Landsburg.
This University of Chicago-educated mathematician and economist is a serious academic. But his true gifts lie elsewhere: He makes complicated economic and public policy issues accessible to a general audience and, like Hazlitt before him, forces the reader to challenge previously unexamined assumptions that muddle public debate.
Landsburg's second book-length presentation of these gifts is a charming little volume, Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life. The book's breezy tone and light-hearted title belie the thoughtfulness and scholarly sophistication that undergird almost every assertion that Landsburg makes, no matter how outrageous. The book is part primer on economics and public policy, part tutorial on the value of skeptical inquiry.
For Landsburg, our reluctance to question certain settled "truths" or conventions, and the hostility with which such questioning is often met, make progress difficult. Take taxes. Deep down inside, Landsburg argues, no one really believes in the virtues of a redistributive income tax. How does he know this? "I know this because I have a daughter, and I take my daughter to the playground, and I listen to what other parents tell their children. In my considerable experience, I have never, ever, heard a parent say to a child that it's okay to forcibly take toys away from other children who have more toys than you do. Nor have I ever heard a parent tell a child that if one kid has more than the others, then it's okay for those others to form a `government' and vote to take those toys away."
The merits of redistributive taxation have nevertheless become deeply ingrained in our culture, and to question them is considered insane or evil. Lamar Alexander, in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, called flat-tax proposals "nutty." In the recent Virginia gubernatorial campaign, President Clinton weighed in on a controversial proposal to eliminate a wealth tax on car ownership, calling supporters of the idea "selfish."
Just how far have our cultural biases shifted that the scold-in-chief can seriously levy such a charge? The tax historian Charles Adams notes in a new book about tax revolts that Brooks Adams, one of the last patriarchs of the legendary Adams clan of Massachusetts, wrote in The Atlantic a little over 100 years ago that "all taxation is an evil" and that "heavy taxes, indiscriminately levied…are one of the greatest curses that can afflict a people." This bias has been turned on its head: Taxes are no longer evil; the people who oppose them are.
Fair Play attempts to foster a hearty "habit of irreverence" to fight the intellectual complacency that stems from our deep-rooted cultural biases. Consider this delightful story:
"When [my daughter] Cayley started attending Sunday School at our local Reform synagogue, I noticed that one of the other classes had been assigned to write an essay beginning `To be more like God, I will [blank].' The best essays had been posted on a public bulletin board, and they all had beginnings like `To be more like God, I will recycle' or `To be more like God, I will be kind to animals.'
"Hoping that Cayley's class would receive the same assignment, I talked to her about what she might write. I suggested `To be more like God, I will slay the first-born of my enemies.' She didn't like that, so we edited it for a while and finally came up with `To be more like God, I will attempt to achieve dominion over the entire universe.' "
He has scant patience for avatars of correctness who structure the debate to
favor political agendas with little basis in fact or theory: Recycling is "godlike"; failing to recycle is, presumably, satanic.
How, then, to correct these biases? First, recognize them. Then expose them.
And expose them Landsburg does. He demonstrates the true nature of taxation, for example, with a tongue-in-cheek policy proposal: "You'll calculate your taxes just as you
do today, but instead of writing a check to the IRS, you'll write a check to Toys R Us, in exchange for the equivalent value in toys. You'll bring the toys home and give them to your children; then after one week an IRS agent will arrive at your door, confiscate the toys, and return them for cash. I can think of no better way to educate children about what taxes are."
All this talk about children and toys and playgrounds leaves Landsburg open to the criticism that serious issues and ideas cannot be explored with trivial anecdotes. On the contrary, he says he has found that explaining issues this way helps "strip away the surrounding verbiage and display the underlying assumptions with devastating clarity."
Make no mistake, Fair Play is a serious book. Landsburg tackles the seminal intellectual achievement of modern American liberalism, John Rawls'sTheory of Justice. This text has driven contemporary political theory since the early 1970s. Thanks to Rawls, we were led to understand the principle of "justice as fairness." A just society could be constructed only behind a "veil of ignorance," where characteristics and circumstances which are "arbitrary from a moral point of view" are prohibited from influencing social outcomes.
Landsburg performs an important bit of intellectual jujitsu on Rawls. He embraces the philosophical framework Rawls established to ensure a just society. Then, donning his economist's cap, he constructs a model to demonstrate just how unappetizing Rawlsian liberalism would prove in practice.
Among other things, it would surely mean a tax on the arbitrary traits which are reliable indicators of earning power. Since whites on average earn more than blacks, there would be a tax on whiteness. Since men on average earn more than women, and taller people more than shorter, there would be maleness and height levies as well. Rawls's theory might also require subsidies. There is a strong correlation between a person's finding a suitable mate in life and his or her overall happiness. Since physical attractiveness expands the pool of potential mates, a just society would provide tax breaks for good-looking people to mate with ugly ones. These examples suggest that Rawls's neat and tidy scheme is not so neat and tidy after all.
For all its strengths, Fair Play is not without flaws. Many of the book's instructive examples and analogies revolve around Landsburg's daughter. While his obvious devotion to her is touching, it can get a bit tiresome, kind of like being shown too many baby pictures.
Landsburg wears his anti-authoritarianism like a badge of honor, but his stridency is off-putting at times. The statement "authority is always and everywhere the enemy of freedom" is either an empty tautology or just plain absurd. Landsburg fails to draw an important distinction between public and private authority, thereby neglecting the role of institutions that are critical for a healthy society, such as churches, businesses, and families. He also fails to note the value of a limited government and the rule of law in the preservation of freedom. And while Landsburg is right that the "blind exaltation of government" is dangerous, he gives the reader pause when he says he is inclined to teach the young "that all laws are bad." Likewise when he calls for an attorney general who "believes that bad laws are bad and should be ignored"--a sentiment worthy of Bill Lann Lee.
All in all, Fair Play is a valuable and eminently readable book. Landsburg shakes the reader out of a comfortable complacency and reminds us of the importance and power of culture. A libertarian friend once remarked, "The problem with conservatives is that all they want to do is fight the culture war." To a certain extent he was correct. But the scope of the culture war is not nearly as narrow as either libertarians or conservatives believe. It is a fight over the largely unexamined assumptions that dominate discourse today--not just about marriage, drugs, abortion, and homosexuality but about trade, regulation, affirmative action, judicial activism, immigration, taxes, torts, the environment, and a host of other issues. Enough, it would seem, for a common project between libertarians and conservatives. Fair Play is an important reminder of that.
Nicholas Schulz (email@example.com) is a producer for the PBS television series Think Tank.