Government-mandated sloth profits no one

Upsplash/Matt Seymour

A few weeks ago, I pointed out that slavery is a frustrating institution for the slaveholder who wants productive labor. I think this assertion helps explain the ambivalence about the pandemic we seem to be seeing from our government.

To summarize the point: If you want to force someone to work for you, your only means of motivating him is to threaten to do something that would harm his productivity. Thus, as the economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “If the employer aims at obtaining products which in quality and quantity excel those whose production can be extorted by the whip, he must interest the toiler in the yield of his contribution. Instead of punishing laziness and sloth, he must reward diligence, skill, and eagerness.”

Proverbs has some interesting things to say about this issue. It points out that one will be frustrated when relying on someone to produce who doesn’t care to produce:

“Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him."

Proverbs 10:26 ESV

“Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence."

Proverbs 26:6 ESV

“Like an archer who wounds everyone is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard."

Proverb 26:10

To apply this to the pandemic and lockdown of 2020 and beyond: “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’” (Proverbs 22:13 ESV). The lockdown was very different to anything imagined by Solomon. But these principles still apply. Even if people are not personally slothful, the rules still work if they are forced to act like sluggards.

The government depends on our labor. It needs us to produce in order to harvest taxes from the populace. At the same time, the government wants to assert and expand its authority over us. The pandemic provided a rationale for doing that in a powerful way. We had to listen to the news to find out if we were permitted to go to work. We had to wait to hear from our governor to find out if we could leave the house.

We can debate if some of the lockdown measures were justified. Plainly, though, many of our politicians are entranced with the power available in declaring a public health emergency. Governor Cuomo is already flirting with that power to deal with gun violence: “Governor Cuomo's state disaster declaration describes gun violence as a public health crisis, and made several comparisons to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting public health response.”

So the government likes emergencies, emergency power, and lockdowns. These things provide an opportunity for them to enhance their power.

But those same enhancements also provide challenges. They convinced many of us to stay inside because “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!” Or else to leave. Whether the lion is real or not, fear of it kept us from being productive, and thus endangered government revenues.

Andrew Cuomo himself caught wind of this months ago:

In fact, he begged people to come back while Governor DeBlasio tried to pretend they didn’t matter.

So on the one hand, the government claims total authority and tries to get the populace to submit. On the other hand, people staying home don’t produce much, and others move out of the jurisdictions that harass them.

And so now, with the novel vaccine and the novel virus still around, does the government open up or continue to impose some form of lockdown? I think Team Biden genuinely fears a bad economy and wants to wind down the pandemic for that reason. A locked down populace is “vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes” to a government in search of revenue. But at the same time, many in government have trouble letting go.

Mark Horne has served as a pastor and worked as a writer. He is the author of The Victory According To Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel, Why Baptize Babies?,J. R. R. Tolkien, and Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men. He is the Executive Director of Logo Sapiens Communications and the writer for

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