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Hannes H. Gissurarson

Spending other people’s money

A critique of Rawls, Piketty and other redistributionists

The Ten Commandments which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai thousands of years ago are mostly in the form of explicit, narrow prohibitions rather than direct orders. We are told not to kill, or steal, or give false evidence against our neighbours, or set our heart on their property.1 This leaves us at liberty to do other things not prohibited in the Commandments, such as choosing what we say to, or about, our neighbours (provided we do not give false evidence against them) and such as exchanging our property, house, land, livestock or whatever else we may possess for something we want from our neighbours (where of course they have the same right to accept or reject the proposed transaction as we). But Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman sometimes remarked that an eleventh commandment should be added and that it ought to be: “Thou shalt not do good with other people’s money.”2

There seems indeed to be little limit to people’s goodness when it does not cost themselves anything. Even if they may not covet their neighbours’ property for themselves, they want to apply government power to seize it from them in order to use it for all kinds of purposes or pursuits they consider noble and worthy, not least for redistribution from the rich to the poor, but also for subsidising various activities, such as opera houses in big cities or quaint lifestyles in remote areas. In this report, commissioned by the Brussels think

tank New Direction, I argue, however, that for most purposes it is immoral and unjust to spend other people’s money, even if a case can certainly be made for taxation to finance widely accepted functions of government, such as upholding law and order, maintaining a strong and effective defence force and taking care of those who cannot look after themselves and who have nobody on whom to rely except the community.