When America was closer to her democratic roots, citizens held town meetings to discuss problems and vote on policies. I was born too late to participate in any of those meetings myself, but the idea of getting together with other concerned citizens to discuss important issues has a nostalgic appeal for me. Consequently, I jumped at the chance to attend a meeting of townspeople to discuss “what we would like the next President to do about the economy.”

The meeting was unforgettable, but what I got out of it was not a list of actions the President might take to rescue the economy, but rather insight into why the economy is in need of rescue in the first place. The meeting began with a discussion of the symptoms of our sick economy—the unemployed, the homeless, the trade and budget deficits, decay of our infrastructure, the number of people on welfare, on Food Stamps, or without adequate medical care, the fact that young people can’t afford to buy a house, even with two incomes, and so on. The people spoke with great eloquence. After about an hour, they moved on to their ideas of how to fix the problems.

At this point, the mood of the meeting changed. The anger at the state of things turned into the excitement of a crusade. Faces glowed and voices filled with fervor as citizens described their pet ideas on what should be done. I was dumbstruck. I had expected this part of the meeting to be a discussion of what the next President could do to help the economy, but to my astonishment, for the remaining two hours, not one word was uttered on that subject.

One person suggested making the tax on tobacco so high that everyone would stop smoking. Another wanted to raise the tax on gasoline high enough to discourage all use of internal-combustion engines and to force people into electric cars. One man wanted to institute a negative income tax, a method of automatically supplementing the incomes of poor people, to guarantee everyone adequate food and housing. He recognized that some people would choose to live on this income, but considered that his plan had an added advantage—people thus freed from the necessity of making a living could contribute to society by producing great art! As soon as that man mentioned art, a woman suggested that not only should the arts be free of censorship, but that a federal grant for art should be available to anyone who wants one. In other words, anyone should get money to do anything he wishes to call art.

Most people favored federally funded health care, and there was talk about adopting national health plans similar to those of England, France, Sweden, Canada, and other countries. Many people wanted to do something about the high salaries paid to CEOs of large corporations. They suggested more steeply progressive income tax rates and a 100 percent inheritance tax to reduce income disparities. They also wanted to increase government regulation of the Savings and Loan industry and the airlines, and to pass laws to make corporations better “corporate citizens.”

In short, people didn’t want to talk about the economy, but about how to use the power of the federal government to restructure society. What was missing was any discussion of the effect these changes would have on the economy. People often speak of an economy as being sick. The biological metaphor is apt, because the specialized parts of an economy, like those of an organism, cooperate for the benefit of the whole. The economy, like an animal, feeds and grows according to its own nature and is healthiest when all of its parts are allowed to function naturally. The biological metaphor even extends to parasitism. Both societies and animals have parasites that attach to them and draw nourishment from them. The detrimental effect of a small parasite on a large animal may be negligible, but if the parasite grows too much, it debilitates the host. If the drain becomes severe enough to kill the animal, the parasite also dies.

Natural selection has endowed parasites with the genetic wisdom to obey their own version of the Laffer curve. They limit the amount of nourishment they draw from the host to keep from endangering its life and their own existence. Government do-goodism, which is nothing more or less than socialism, is an economic parasite. Unable to live in pure form, it can survive only by drawing strength from a host economy. It does not have the innate wisdom of a natural parasite, but grows until the host society either collapses or becomes wise enough to throw it off.

The former Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe are examples of societies that socialism has destroyed. The growing costs of the health care and welfare programs of Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, and France are draining their national economies. Taxes are so high in Sweden that investors are finding tax havens abroad, and Swedish corporations are moving out of the country. (Sound familiar?) In the Netherlands, as many people live on the dole as work, and because of the generous health benefits Dutch workers enjoy, as many as 13 percent of those in the “working” group call in sick. Small wonder that the economies of these countries are in trouble.

The town meeting showed me how little the American people understand the workings of free enterprise, the economic system that has made them the envy of the world. This economic system, based on each person’s ownership of himself and the products of his labor, is the most efficient and moral system yet devised; efficient because it provides maximum incentive for each individual to produce what the other members of society want, and moral because it recognizes the natural right of individuals to choose how to employ their own talents and to dispose of what they produce.

The townspeople are apparently not concerned about the immorality of taking the fruits of one person’s labor to give to another. They want to push toward what-ought-to-be but apparently have forgotten that the output of the economy determines the limits of what-can-be. They need to realize that government action beyond keeping the peace usually shrinks the realm of what-can-be by reducing the freedom people need to create jobs and prosperity.

The town meeting convinced me that the source of our economic difficulties does not lie in the President’s actions or inaction—it is much closer to home. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”