I was talking with my son the other day, and the subject turned to events in the news. He asked the question "Why are people so greedy nowadays?" The answer is, of course, that people in general are no more greedy, violent, generous, or kind now than they were 20, 50, 100, or 1,000 years ago. They make decisions and respond to incentives the same way they always have. The technologies and the institutions with which they can do their good or bad, however, certainly have changed over time. The ups and downs of civilizations had much more to do with the laws and political institutions which affected the incentives for the people to be productive and responsible than with changes in the nature of the people themselves.
The events in the news are not unique to today. There have been economic catastrophes, high-level conspiracies, and abusive leaders and politicians in every society for which there is recorded history. The violence in Arizona this past week was frightening and disturbing, but it isn't anything new. There were assassinations and mass murders thousands of years ago. When you put it into perspective, it is much more surprising that there is so little of it. When something bad happens, it is all over the news. But why is it news? Because it is out of the ordinary. Nobody hears about the thousands of crimes prevented by citizens with guns. Nobody hears about young people helping little old ladies across the street or families that pay off their mortgage without a hitch or employees who are productive for 30 or 40 years, who lead responsible lives, save their money, and then live a full, happy life in retirement. It's not news. It's not exciting. It's ordinary.
We plan our normal routines because things happen the way we expect them to. We put bread in the toaster because we expect a certain result. We anticipate getting paid a certain amount for the work we do. We go to the store having some reasonable idea of what a gallon of milk, a pair of pants, or a washing machine will cost. People normally cooperate voluntarily, getting what they need and giving something in return. That is the essence of civilization. Every successful society has had some type of protection of property and other rights, even if certain groups of people were specifically excluded from those protections.
The Roman Republic of two thousand years ago became a great civilization not because the people were smarter, better, stronger or more virtuous than other people of the time. They didn't become great even from defeating and plundering the unfortunate victims of their efficient army. The Republic and the subsequent Empire arose and lasted so long because it had a rule of law which protected the rights of a good portion of the population. To be a Roman citizen meant you had rights. There was generally a high degree of voluntary trade and cooperation. The ups and downs of the society had a great deal to do with the economic incentives built into the rule of law. The fall of the Empire was more an economic than political phenomenon. Continual devaluation of the money and the resulting severe inflation eroded the property of common people and redistributed it to the emperors and the military class. Draconian laws enacted to counter the unforeseen consequences of the inflation and of other ill-conceived laws destroyed all economic incentives for the people to be productive.
That people have not changed is cause for both relief and concern. The human race has survived all sorts of natural, economic, and political calamities. It is sure to survive into the future. But there have been high and low points in civilizations, good and bad governments, and good and bad social institutions. It is distressing that the lessons of prior generations have to be learned over and over again by those which come later. Our government is on the path taken by the Roman Empire. They are destroying our money through systematic devaluation over a long period of time. They are regulating the lives of citizens with laws that only restrict voluntary cooperation of law abiding citizens, laws which do not bind the law breakers. They are imposing strangling bureaucracies which eat out the substance of the people. People have not changed. They will react to the incentives put in place as they have in ages past. That does not bode well for the long-term future.
Dan McLaughlin is a columnist for The Post-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.