In today’s Western society, with the overwhelming majority of us products of at least twelve years of mandatory government schooling, free market advocates are vastly outnumbered by defenders of the status quo. After all, what use does the state have for critical thinkers who are able to think things out for themselves and come to their own conclusions? A population full of such people could come to all sorts of outlandish ideas such as that the use of force and coercion is always reprehensible, even when committed by “officials”. We can’t have that!
Instead, state-run schools cultivate the sort of hive mind of which we see many expressions in popular culture, perhaps most notably in Hollywood. The basic plot of many a popular movie or TV show has the good guys brandishing uniforms and badges while the bad guys are shady criminals out to destroy the peaceful lives we so happily live thanks to government. Other Hollywood productions, however, include more subtle references to the advancements supposedly made possible by – if not exclusively attributable to – state intervention. One recent example of the latter is the 2014 movie by the title “The Good Lie“.
The film follows a group of orphaned Sudanese refugees lucky enough to escape their war-torn homeland to resettle in the United States. After finding a new home in Kansas City, Missouri, the three brothers Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul have to start at the bottom of the societal totem pole. While Jeremiah and Paul start working a low-wage job at a local grocery store, the more ambitous Mamere decides to hit the books and study to become a doctor. Naturally the men experience quite the culture shock trying to adapt to life in the U.S. both in the personal and professional sphere.
One scene has the store manager asking Jeremiah and Paul to trash two shopping carts full of expired food. Considering their background the brothers are perplexed at the notion of so-called old food, but to their objection that there may be hungry mouths out there to feed, the manager responds: “I don’t sell the food inside to give it away outside, I’m a businessman!”. He then goes on to cite “a big headache with the Health Department” as another reason for trashing the food. Later on there is a confrontation where the manager gets upset with Jeremiah for giving away food to a homeless woman, causing him to quit his job on the spot.
The false dichotomy being set up here is that of a store’s choice between giving food away at a loss or selling it at a profit. Rather, the choice is between avoiding any risk of potential lawsuits by throwing something in the garbage or potentially running afoul of onerous health regulations by giving that food away to people in need. While it may not be an efficient use of resources to go out into the streets to find those people, surely it makes perfect business sense to give away food that can no longer be sold. Just imagine how quick that news would spread on modern communication platforms and the subsequent outpour of support for the business. As the manager points out though, he could get sued for selling food that in the brothers’ minds is perfectly fit for consumption. Clearly such overregulation is a major contributor to the mountains of food that simply go to waste in the U.S. every day.
In another scene one of the refugees, after being fired from his job, is told about “this thing we have in America called bosses”. Basically he is told that although these people can be incredible jerks, employees are powerless to do anything “because you need money to live, and to eat, and to go to school”! To call this a gross oversimplification would be an understatement. Are there people in managerial positions that don’t know how to treat their subordinates with dignity? Sure. Is that likely to affect people in low-skilled jobs more than those with more options on the labor market? Most probably.
The important distinction to be made here, though, is that no employee can be forced to work somewhere against his or her will. While the fry cook at McDonald’s is unlikely to want to stay in his job until retirement, the very fact that he is there in the first place indicates he perceives it to be the best alternative at that particular point in time. After all, had a better, more lucrative job been available surely he would have taken that over flipping burgers. And if he performs well on the job, the fry cook may soon be promoted to a more interesting position or use his experience and professional reference to obtain a better job elsewhere.
Resenting low-paid jobs and the businesses that provide them for not offering a so-called living wage is a great way for populists to score points in the public debate. At the same time it reveals their complete ignorance of basic economics and lack of common sense. Like so many before them the Sudanese brothers featured in The Good Lie come to a developed country in search for opportunities to build a new and better life. It just so happens that building something up takes time and hard work. Only in a fantasy world do well-paying jobs defy the unwritten laws of life and economics and just fall in one’s lap because of some words scribbled on pieces of paper by politicians. And only in a fantasy world does government schooling lead to an educated populace.