Privilege Versus Privilege
Janet Rankin Aiken
[Reprinted from The Freeman, October, 1939]
When I was a little girl, I heard my parents discussing my great
"He had such a temper his own daughters couldn't live with him,"
said my mother.
"He didn't have a worse temper than other people," said my
father. "He was just franker."
Today we are confronted with a major war in Europe. We are told that "civilization"
is at stake, that the result well may be a relapse into "barbarism,"
that we must "liberate" the Germans and the Austrians and
the Czechs and the Poles. But just what are civilization and
barbarism? Who is fighting whom, in this war? And what liberation can
it bring to the world? What are the two opposing D's, Dictatorship and
Democracy? What is war about, anyhow, if we dig below the political to
the always-underlying economic?
At bottom every war is about the privilege of collecting money or
goods from people. There are many ways of doing such collecting, three
of which have become traditional. These are taxes, customs duties, and
rent. In Danzig the quarrel broke out over customs duties. In Germany
Hitler rose to power largely through a fourth method -- overcharging
Hitler is often called a thug and a racketeer, which means simply
that he makes people give him their money by force, through novel and
untraditional methods. He isn't greedier than most people, he is just
franker about it, and also more adept at thinking up ways and means.
Jew-baiting, concentration camps, all the parade of brutality are
parts of this frankness. Hitler reminds me of my great uncle John.
The dictator knocks people down and takes it away from them, while
the democratic systems pick their pockets. Russia starves its kulaks
quick, Texas its sharecroppers lingeringly. But at bottom thuggery and
pickpocketing, dictatorship and democracy as at present administered,
devote themselves to the same project -- the enrichment of the few at
the expense of the many. In the democratic world it is the owner of
natural resources, in Germany and Russia it is the "state,"
who are enriched.
Now democratic privilege has advantages and disadvantages for the
common man, by comparison with dictatorial privilege. The former
leaves people relatively unharmed from strong arm methods. It is more
courteous. It presents a better illusion of freedom and civilization,
and by this fact it puts its victims to sleep to be robbed. There is
just a chance that the greater frankness of dictatorship may wake
people up sooner.
Many people are inclined to favor pickpocketing as a cut above
thuggery, and perhaps they are right. Freedom can at least be taught
in democratic countries, where also there exists the machinery to
destroy privilege by peaceful and orderly means, whereas in the
totalitarian states it would almost certainly require a revolution.
But will privilege anywhere in the world abdicate without a fight? It
is open to question.
The struggle of the present war, then, is between thuggery and
pickpocketing as methods of relieving the individual of his cash,
which means of the things he produces. Is it better to be robbed
democratically than dictatorily? Most people in the democratic
countries say yes, and one may respect their prejudice. But the
Georgist, knowing that privilege is the real enemy, realizes that the
real war, the war against privilege, is scarcely yet joined. And he
keeps himself as aloof as possible from unreal wars, that he may
continue to serve as a soldier in the ranks of that greater war.
This European war is a gigantic red herring dragged across the path
of straight thinking, and it is important that we stick to the path in
spite of this major distraction. This is not a war between social good
and social evil. It is a war of methods for accomplishing robbery, a
war between rival candidates for the administration of privilege. It
is not a producer's war, because there is no such thing.
The producer of wealth, so long as he keeps on producing, has neither
time nor inclination to contend with other producers. All he can do is
rejoice that wealth is being created, and this is the normal state of
man. The pickpocket and the thug alike live by dipping into the stream
of production; and racketeers always need protection, because when you
are living by the labor of others, some other apostle of the easy life
may at any time come and push you out. This is what Stalin has done to
the Czar, Mussollni to the Negus, Hitler to the Jews of Germany and
the landlords of Czecho-Slovakia. This is what Chamberlain and
Daladier are trying to do to Hitler.
Of course you understand that I am writing in symbols. Hitler and
Chamberlain are protectors of privilege, symbols of the groups of men
among whom the fruits of privilege are spread. The reality is the slow
or quick starvation of the common man, the tribute wrung from you and
me every week of our lives by privilege. This is what the Georgist