Acton Institute Powerblog

PBR: Something for Nothing

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In response to the question, “What are the moral lessons of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)?”

The ARRA makes clear that we have not learned one great moral lesson: You can’t have something for nothing. Or, among economists, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

I’m not even sure that anybody is seriously arguing that most of the items contained in this bill constitute “stimulus.” Congress can genuinely stimulate the economy in two ways: decreasing taxes and decreasing regulation. In other words, by putting fewer hindrances in the way of those who wish to produce and consume. Everything else is smoke and mirrors. Government puts money into one person’s hands only by taking it out of someone else’s; or by creating it ex nihilo, which amounts to the same thing (moralists have been condemning the debasement of currency at least since the Late Scholastics).

If the bill has any positive impact, it will be psychological, making people believe that the economy will improve and therefore generating positive economic activity. This possibility seems doubtful at this point. It appears instead that the measure’s most significant effect will be to increase the cynicism with which the American people view their government. I’m undecided yet as to whether that is a favorable development.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of CatholicHistory.net.