What a child could teach the Democrats

We cut our candy tax in the suburbs this Halloween, and productivity shot up.

In past years, in an attempt to limit gluttony, we imposed strict controls on the proportion of the Halloween haul they were permitted to keep. Over time the amounts varied, like the tax code, but the children always had to surrender most of the candy they brought home in their pillowcases.

As a result, trick-or-treating became an exciting but very brief annual episode. We’d go to a dozen houses; the children would shrug good-naturedly and say they had enough.

Deluded nanny statist that I was, I thought they were willing to quit because they understood that they didn’t “need” more candy than they had.

Wrong: They had calculated that it was pointless hanging around in the dark collecting sweets they couldn’t keep. Why bother?

This year, we slashed regulations with a zest that would have made Reagan proud. “You can keep everything you get,” we told them, “so long as you eat it slowly.”

“Hurrah!” they yelled, and rushed off. An hour later, the smaller children were crumpling under the weight of their loot and ready for home. It was now raining. But that didn’t dissuade the ablest-bodied among us, a boy of almost 13.

He hunched his shoulders against the weather and soldiered on alone. Much later he returned, his pizza costume (featuring real pepperoni!) sodden, with a bag of candy that must have weighed six or seven pounds.

“I cared more about what I got and how many houses I went to because I was conscious that I would be able to keep it all,” he explained later, neatly explicating how free people behave in free markets. (It may sound phony, but he really said it.)

He had demonstrated the simple truth that when people are compelled to give away what they earn, or expend their private sweat for collective benefit, they simply will not work as hard — even if they suffer in consequence.

The Pilgrim Fathers realized this in 1623, as the struggling Massachusetts Bay colony was starving. The colonists had tried to farm communally, with dismal results.

“At length … the Governor … gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves,” wrote that governor, William Bradford, in his account of the time.

“This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise … and gave far better content,” Governor Bradford went on. “The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

Yet the same communal foolishness has been tried again and again — often imposed with staggering tyranny and oppression. In the early 1990s, North Koreans were going hungry. The farmers “neglected the collective fields for private “kitchen gardens” next to their houses, or small plots that they carved out of the side of uncultivated mountain slopes,” Barbara Demick writes in this week’s New Yorker.

“Driving through the North Korean countryside,” she continues, “you could clearly see the contrast between the private gardens, bursting with vegetables — beanpoles soaring skyward, vines drooping with pumpkins — next to the collective fields with haphazard rows of stunted corn that had been planted by so-called ‘volunteers.’”

Why is it that so many politicians seem unable to grasp what a trick-or-treating child knows instinctively? Does Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who boasts of “trying on every front to increase the role of government,” and who gloats that “there are plenty of very rich people out there whom we can tax,” not see the damage he risks?

Does President Barack Obama, so keen to “spread the wealth,” not understand how wealth is created? Do House Democrats, with the colossal levy they propose on the makers of medical devices, among others, not see how doing so could throttle innovation?

This ain’t rocket science. It’s not even as tricky as exit polling.

Children who aren’t allowed to keep much of their Halloween candy don’t bother collecting very much. Seventeenth-century pilgrims and 21st-century North Koreans starved when compelled to raise their food in collective fields. People who groan under heavy taxation will slacken their efforts.

Confiscatory policies always and everywhere reduce the incentive to achieve. You’d think our ruling party would know this by now. It’s an economic lesson so simple, even a child can understand it.

Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.