I cannot imagine anyone’s not wanting to improve peoples’ standards of living. Problems arise, however, when we begin to define what we mean by that. Do we mean improving the standard of everyone in the world, or do we mean improving the standards of our own people? Do we mean raising the standards of only some of our people? Do we mean achieving a positive rise or just a relative rise? These are the fundamental questions that must be answered before raising the standard of living can be more than a political promise heard once every four years. Never short of opinions, I have one on this subject as well, and I’m about to share it with you.

I think that everyone, bar none, would at least pay lip service to the desirability of causing a positive rise in the standard of living of everyone in the world. That would seem to be the theory behind pouring large sums of money through international development organizations into the pockets of petty tyrants all around the globe. I believe we can best serve the other peoples of this world by setting a good example for them. Once they have seen what can be done, they can do it themselves if they want to put out the effort. We should concentrate our efforts on our own people, where we have both the greatest obligation and the greatest chance of success. Having decided where we will concentrate our efforts we must now decide what we intend to achieve, and how we are going to go about it.

Do we really want to make a positive improvement in the standards of living of all of our people, or will we settle for the appearance of improvement by reducing the disparity between affluence and poverty? Sociologists in academia seem to have a good bit of time on their hands and have used some of it to analyze the nation’s social class structure. Apparently, one can make a science of anything. It is possible to produce a fifty page pamphlet on the proper way to push a broom (and don’t think some bureaucrat hasn’t considered doing so). Sociology is no exception. The bean counters of the “discipline” discover that people at the top of the economic ladder are improving their living standard faster than the people at the bottom, assume that is a bad thing, and look for some way to correct it. It seems not to matter to them that the people at the top are actually creating new wealth. To them there is no difference between creating new wealth and taking a bigger share of a pie of fixed size. Some people would be perfectly happy to freeze to death in the dark so long as everyone had to freeze to death in the dark. Egalitarianism at any price is a very popular, if somewhat unreasonable, social concept. I opt for raising the standards of all and ignoring disparities. If I have enough to satisfy my needs, what difference should it make to me that someone else has more? So long as all members of society have the opportunity to succeed, my equality requirement has been satisfied. If your idea of equality runs more to the egalitarian concepts of the French Revolution, I think you are probably going to be more a hindrance than a help in the effort to raise living standards.

Before deciding how we are going to raise our living standards, we should have some idea of where those standards are now. I am constantly assaulted with “news” stories of poverty and social injustice. Are we really that bad? Someone has to be on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. If you define that rung as poverty, and set eradication of poverty as your goal, you are by definition doomed to failure. If your goal is to provide people with the opportunity to climb the ladder, there is some hope of success. I would judge the desirability of our living standards by the length of the waiting list for legal immigration into this country. The deluge of illegal immigration is a good indication as well. If you were to seek out every human being on this planet who does not live in the United States, and ask each of them if he would like to move to the U.S., what do you think would be the ratio of positive to negative responses? I’m sure that there is some small group of tribesmen somewhere who have never heard of the U.S. and would not want to leave home. I’m equally certain that there are a lot of fundamentalist religious people in the world who would not want to expose their children to the moral climate of our secular society. Also, there are probably quite a few college professors with very little ambition who are doing quite well in their socialist societies. These and similar lots notwithstanding, I suspect that the number of people wanting to relocate among us would outnumber those of a contrary view, by rather a large margin. Why would these people want to come here and work at the bottom of our economic ladder? The fact is that the people at the bottom of our economic ladder have a better standard of living than people in most of the rest of the world. Another reason is that immigrants know that they do not have to remain at the bottom of the economic ladder. A little hard work and frugality can, and does, lift them up a rung in rather short order.

Having decided whose standards we want to raise and where we’re going to start, we need to ask ourselves whether or not it is possible to raise someone’s standard of living. Unfortunately, if you are thinking along the lines of some government program, the answer seems to be no. The final third of the twentieth century has seen an awful lot of treasure and effort directed at that goal, mostly without success. We can, however, make sure that each and every individual knows how to raise his own standard of living. The secret to a higher standard of living is personal responsibility and education. When I say education, I do not mean pouring more money into the black hole of the school system; I do not mean indoctrination in political correctness; I do not mean self-esteem enhancement; nor do I mean learning all about the internet. I mean learning the basic skills of living (the 3 Rs), a thorough knowledge of how our government works, and basic economics. Without these skills living standards cannot be indefinitely sustained, let alone improved.

Every once in a while someone of apparently modest means dies and leaves a million dollars. The TV news programs are full of the story and no one can figure out how that kind of money could have been accumulated. In fact, there is no mystery. Everyone can do it. There are very few people in this world who could not save $170 per month if they had to. It might be a strain, but it could be done. Anybody who invests $170 per month in an index mutual fund over his working lifetime will retire a millionaire. There is no great mystery about how it is done. Anyone can do it. Why don’t more people do it? Most people haven’t a clue as to how our economy works. The reason they weren’t taught in school is because their teachers hadn’t a clue either. It is time to start educating people. It is time to start teaching them the things they need to know to take responsibility for themselves, and to take part in governing themselves.

Every time we have an election there is widespread lamentation over the low level of citizen participation in the selection of our leaders. Before discussing the reason for this phenomenon, I should like to point out that there is some short term good to be derived from voter apathy. We seldom litter our streets with corpses on election day. In countries where election emotions run high, the body count often runs just as high. In spite of this short term gain, however, voter apathy will eventually result in the destruction of the republic. How then can we increase citizen participation in government, preferably without introducing election violence? The first step toward interesting citizens in participating in the selection of government leaders is to insure that they are educated well enough to understand how the system works. Once they know how the system works and realize that they are paying for everything the government does, they will necessarily conclude that they have a stake in the outcome of elections. So long as people believe that someone else is paying for the government, they are not going to get too excited over what it does. Too many people believe the rhetoric of the demagogues who tell them that taxes are paid by those rich folks and those big corporations. This is an especially easy assumption if you don’t have to send anything to the IRS, or even easier if the IRS sends something to you in the form of an earned income credit. It is, however, an erroneous assumption. Every time you buy an airline ticket, a gallon of gas, or a pack of cigarettes, you are paying taxes, a lot of taxes, to the federal government. The politicians who like to spend our money have done a very good job of convincing us that we are paying a fair price for the ticket, the gas, or the cigarettes. Who stops to ask how much the product is worth and how much we are paying the government for being allowed to spend our money? The taxes are invisible and boiling frog painless. As insidious as these taxes are, if we read the fine print we can probably discover what the government’s take is. An even more clandestine tax that we all pay is the corporate income tax. Corporations pay a lot of money in income taxes and that money has to come from somewhere. Corporations are not people. You can’t cut into their lifestyles with taxes. Corporations are pieces of paper lying in a registry office. They exist to make a profit for their shareholders and they don’t really care what the corporate income tax rate is, so long as it is also paid by their competitors and is less than 100%. The corporation will make its profit or it will cease to exist. It simply adds the tax bill to the price of its products. Every time you buy a pair of socks, buried deep within the price of those socks is your share of the corporate income tax. Getting rid of the corporate income tax would prevent the government’s taxing us without telling us we’re being taxed. I believe that there should be a flat tax on income and that everyone should have to pay it. If everyone knew exactly what the government was costing him, there would be more participation in the political process and, as a result, less cost to all of us.

The way to raise living standards is to make each citizen realize that he is personally responsible for himself and his family. The country will be a healthier and a wealthier place for all of us when we realize that we all have a stake in our government, and our economy, and know what to do about it.