Play the Hand You're Dealt
By David Henderson
I have a few mottos in life. The title of this post is one of them, and it has served me well. It sounds obvious. What other kind of hand could you play? None. But what you can do is complain about the hand you’re dealt. And that normally does either zero good or negative good, i.e., bad. The bad part is that it can distract you from making the best of an imperfect situation.
Why do I write about this on an economics blog? Because of a comment by someone earlier this month when I Facebooked about the Econlib Feature Article by Pierre Lemieux titled “Free Trade and TPP.” Because of my policy of not violating FB confidentiality, I will not quote his name. I had titled my post “Is the TPP Good or Bad on Net?” Here was our discussion:
Person X: I cannot believe the question is even seriously being posed by those who claim to support liberty and free markets.
DRH: You can’t believe it before reading the article or after reading the article?
Person X: Both, it read somewhat as I expected. I still am disappointed. It is like arguing for fascism as a good step away from communism. It is not and I don’t even appreciate seeing the option on the table. We all have limited lifespans. No one should have to waste their lives while politicians and economist experiment.
DRH: I’m not clear what this has to do with wasting your life.
Person X: My point is that by not immediately going for the gold standard in liberty, by tolerating a mediocre oppression over an absolute oppression, or as in the case of the TPP, even advancing oppression in the name of profit, we are burning up the hours of people’s lives, keeping them in chains, and that is unconscionable.
Person X was acting as if he thought that the alternatives being presented were the TPP and totally free trade. If that had been true, the choice would have been obvious. But, as Pierre Lemieux pointed out and backed up, the choice is between TPP and the status quo. That’s the hand we’re dealt.
I see this a lot, especially in libertarians. When I was a senior economist with Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, a libertarian friend who was in town visited me in my office. He complained about a lot of the things Reagan was doing and I agreed with him about all of his complaints. I also pointed, though, that the things I was working on were, almost entirely, fighting off bad ideas from other executive branch agencies and, when I had time, fighting off ideas from a Tennessee congressman named Al Gore. And I was winning almost all of them. He agreed with me that I was on the right side of all the fights I named.
Then he said, “I just don’t see why you would work for him, inching along instead of working for massive reductions in government power.”
“That would be wonderful,” I responded. “Who’s offering to hire me to do that?”
To his credit, he grinned. He got it.
From a very early age, I learned to play the hand I was dealt.
In 1968, Gerard Pelletier, Canada’s secretary of state in Pierre Trudeau’s government, suggested a draft for civilian work. Young people would be required to spend a year working for the government at artificially low wages. The penalty for refusing to go would be a prison sentence. I immediately wrote a letter to the Winnipeg Free Press, which was published. I wrote:
I read with astonishment the article in the Free Press, October 29, entitled Non-Military Draft Plan Under Study. The only objection to the idea made by State Secretary Gerard Pelletier was that it would be difficult to put into practice. Considerations of justice do not appear to have entered his mind.
It is indicative of the temper of our times that when people propose government intervention, they do not say, “Is it right?” but only “Can we get away with it?”
In the same article Mr. Pelletier is quoted as saying that the young would like to “play their part in creating a more just society.” I am one of those young people. Because I want a just society I am taking my stand. I refuse to be coerced into serving a year for the government. Government intervention has never led to a just society and never will. (November 9, 1968.)
After the letter appeared, I had more time to think about it. My initial thought was “OK, I might show up if I’m drafted but I’m going to make their lives miserable.” My next thought was “Nah.” I knew myself, and I knew that I always got over resentments very quickly and played the hand I was dealt. Would I have risked prison by not showing up? Probably not. I probably would have tried to figure out a way around being drafted. And, in the worst case, if I were drafted, I would have then said “What can I learn in my year here?”
Playing the hand I’m dealt has served me very well. I recommend it.