Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Let’s You and Him Fight

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In 1857, a North Carolina man published a book which he expected would cause quite some trouble in his community. The book was The Impending Crisis of the South by Hinton Rowan Helper. He took an objective look at conditions in American and appealed to ordinary Southern people to act in their own economic interest to abolish slavery:

Nothing short of the complete abolition of slavery can save the South from falling into the vortex of utter ruin. Too long have we yielded a submissive obedience to the tyrannical domination of an inflated oligarchy; too long have we tolerated their arrogance and self-conceit; too long have we submitted to their unjust and savage exactions. Let us now wrest from them the sceptre of power, establish liberty and equal rights throughout the land, and henceforth and forever guard our legislative halls from the pollutions and usurpations of proslavery demagogues.
— Helper, p. 28 (

Helper set up side-by-side comparisons of northern and southern states grouped by 1790 populations: New York and Virginia, Massachusetts and North Carolina. He showed statistically how the economies of the southern states had fallen behind because of slavery. He explained how slavery reduced the prospects of the free whites of the South who did not own slaves, and appealed to them to refuse to fight a war to defend the rights of slave-owning planters to further impoverish them.

We know from history that Helper’s appeal was not heard. The economic reality he described asserted itself in the superior forces the Union would ultimately deploy against the Confederacy. After losing the war, the planters reasserted themselves in the peace. They instituted sharecropping, keeping blacks and poor whites in wage slavery for decades. They continued to play off poor whites against blacks while maintaining their own economic position. Even Helper lost his way, becoming a white supremacist later in life.

The game that the planters were playing and Helper was describing is called “Let’s You and Him Fight.” I’ll divide two parties and keep the hostility going, while I calmly walk up the middle with all the marbles. This game was described at an individual level by Eric Berne in Games People Play (1964):

The internal and external psychological advantages for [the initiators] are derived from the position that honest competition is for suckers …
— Berne, p. 124.

All my life I have seen the same game played among groups of Americans by people who want to set themselves up as the arbiters of what is fair. These latter people inflame the citizens, often along racial lines, playing one group against another while the instigators further their careers. In 1971, Lester Thurow wrote The Zero-Sum Society, providing a theoretical justification for this game at the national level:

Every time a tax is levied or repealed, every time public expenditures are extended or abolished, an equity decision has to be made. Since economic gains are relatively easy to allocate, the basic problem comes down to one of economic losses. Whose income “ought” to go down?
— Thurow, p. 17.

It is safe to infer that, by writing the book and arguing for these positions, Thurow, who was the dean of the Sloan School of Business at MIT, was humbly offering himself for the job of croupier at the economic casino he was proposing. A casino is a zero-sum institution, and every gambler knows the house always wins.

Want to see what a zero-sum America actually looks like? Here you go:

Fight during cancelled Donald Trump rally in Chicago, 11 Mar 16.

Fight during cancelled Donald Trump rally in Chicago, 11 Mar 16. Image from CNN.

I am confident that this is not what Lester Thurow had in mind when he wrote his book. Neither did the people who led the introduction of entitlements in the 1930s; they were seeking to avoid this very thing. Neither did the people who strove to broaden the reach of these entitlements since the 1960s.

They all had the best intentions — but those are what the road to hell is paved with.

Yes, Il Donald has appealed to the lowest instincts of people. But he is made possible by those who have gone before. Where Thurow says, “whose income ‘ought’ to go down?”, Trump’s followers say, “Not ours, Jack!”

Whatever level of political awareness they are operating on, the Trumpkins have sufficient common sense to realize that more government handouts for other people means less for them. A Nobel laureate economist is only starting to get his mind around this:

Put it this way: There’s a reason whites in the Deep South vote something like 90 percent Republican, and it’s not their philosophical attachment to libertarian principles.
— Paul Krugman, “Clash of the Republican Con Artists”, The New York Times (

Ya think? For eighty years politicians educated people to expect handouts from the government: why do you think they’re called entitlements? Whoops, but you’re not entitled, cause we want to give them to these other people over here, who we have decided are more deserving. What happened to the social contract?

What about the Democratic con artists who are also playing Let’s You and Him Fight, asserting the moral high ground because only they know the secret of how to distribute government largesse equitably? What game are you playing, Paul? Are you honest enough with yourself to even know?

Paul Krugman looked into the future and saw Donald Trump staring back at him. This is what you get when you work very hard to build the zero-sum society. Krugman doesn’t want a class war; he wants to put his policy in place and have the people who lose out just quietly take their medicine. If we just quietly took our medicine from the authorities, there would never have been an American Revolution.

If you think this is bad, wait until you see the cage match between the mortgage interest deduction and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Two go in; one comes out.

The antidote to all this is not very complicated. It is not to demonize blacks, whites or Mexican immigrants. It is to turn them all loose to live their lives and keep your hands out of their pockets. We’ve known this for some three thousand years:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
— Deut. 5:21 (NIV)

That commandment is not there to protect your neighbor. It is there to protect you from the dark forces within you.

Every con in the history of man has required you, the mark, to want something you haven’t earned.


Written by srojak

March 13, 2016 at 12:27 pm

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