None of Your Business (2008 Dec)

by Barry A. Liebling

Imagine someone approaching you, invading your personal space. “What plans do you have for your career? What products will your company produce in the next year? Who will you hire, and what vendors will you use? How much will each person in your company be paid?” The stranger’s intrusive questions escalate to requests. “Make sure your plans conform with my directives. I will instruct you on how to hire employees, manage them, and buy services. Submit your compensation plans to me for approval.”

Certainly some people would be quite pleased to encounter an inquisitor who takes command and relieves them of the burden of making policy decisions. Alternatively, if you value your autonomy and understand that you should live according to your own best judgement you would take umbrage. Your natural response might be, “No thanks. How I run my life is none of your business.”

And the expression “none of your business” is highly significant. When you say it you are asserting that in this area you are the legitimate owner and that others cannot justifiably step in without your permission. Individualism holds that you should have the authority to run nearly every aspect of your life. In essence you have the right to plan intelligently and live as you see fit providing you deal with people only by mutual consent and refrain from initiating force or committing fraud.

If you value your autonomy you should be wary of situations where it can be taken from you. Be especially cautious in your relations with the government – the institution that is necessary for protecting everyone’s rights but is a menace if it attempts to do anything else. The more government goodies you receive the less freedom you have. Many people do not see the connection. Why would government services necessarily impinge on my ability to do what I want?

The short answer is that you are obligated whenever you accept “gifts,” and the government has immense power to assure that you meet your obligation.

Consider executive salaries. For years egalitarians have railed against what they regard as excessive executive pay. Why should top management make so much more than ordinary workers? Meddlers have perpetually called for legislation to restrict high salaries, and their efforts have been largely unsuccessful. The rejoinder has been it is up to the owners of the company – or the stockholders – to decide on executive pay. They can hire, fire, and compensate as they wish. Anyone not happy with a company’s pay policies can simply have nothing to do with it.

But in the last few months the world has changed. Congress has approved a bail-out package for financial institutions and is close to intervening to “save” the automobile industry. As expected, one of the first things elected officials have said is that they will put a stop to excessive executive salaries. Since the government now has given companies money – and perhaps bought equity stakes in the firms – the classic rejoinder does not work. When bailed-out companies sell their souls compensation policies are no longer private.

Losing the authority to decide on pay is only the beginning. When the government is a partner in your business you become the junior partner.

In the old days the managements of automobile companies crafted their own strategy and tactics. If their business model and execution were sound the company would be prosperous. Alternatively, manufacturers with foolish plans and poor follow-through would lose money or even go out of business. In recent years the government has restricted car manufacturers by mandating fuel economy standards and by dictating how many small cars and large cars can be made for the United States market.

With the proposed bail-out of the automobile industry car executives will no longer inhabit a small government box; they will be wearing a tight government straightjacket. There is no doubt that if companies get large infusions of government “investments” they will be doing the bidding of the Washington elite. Building cars with gasoline engines, hybrid engines, or electric motors will not be an ordinary business issue so much as compliance with the politically powerful. The decision to obtain automobile parts domestically or from outside the country will be less about business and more about negotiations between governments.

If government “prizes” to business puts fetters on those in the commercial world what do similar “prizes” do to people in their personal lives? Exactly the same thing.

The new administration has promised it will institute universal health care. A government that provides you with medical services is a government that restricts your actions. In the past what you decided to eat was up to you. You could attempt to take care of yourself by choosing wisely or you could consume food imprudently. But when the government foots your medical bill you may be costing society extra money if you ruin your health, so what you eat is no longer only your concern. You can expect there will be government dietary guidelines that will tell you what foods are recommended, and there will be sanctions for non-compliance.

And food is not the end of the personal story. Should younger people be allowed to participate in dangerous sports? Should older people be permitted to travel? Official commissions will study how your choices might affect government expenditures. The range of actions that you control will be reduced.

Take note that pundits who favor strong government interventions understand very well how they restrict freedom in business and personal affairs. However, interventionists are generally suspicious of autonomy. People who manage themselves are likely to make incorrect decisions – decisions that would not be made by “wise government experts.” It is best, according to interventionists, to direct individuals for “the good of society.”

When you learn about the newest government proposal to help you out be vigilant. The attached strings are numerous and durable. Your natural response might be, “No thanks. How I run my life is none of your business.”

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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