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The world has been witnessing an incredible event this past month as the tragedy in Southern Asia has been flashed before us daily. While it is not the worst disaster in the history of man, it certainly is the worst in the memory of many people living today. Who has not felt the need to extent a helping hand to these people? Who has not asked the question, “What more can I do?” And so, millions of people have responded and not only opened their hearts but also their checkbooks. Just a few days ago, the International Red Cross issued the following bulletin:
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies today announced that the $1.2 billion (1.4 billion Swiss francs) pledged worldwide in the 30 days since the tsunami was sufficient to meet the costs of the entire Red Cross tsunami relief program.
Following the Federation’s lead, the American Red Cross believes that current contributions and pledges, when received from the American public, will be sufficient to carry out its immediate and longer-term plans to assist survivors of the deadly tsunami that roared ashore December 26, 2004.
To date, approximately $1.2 billion has been given or pledged by donors to Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies around the world. Due to the generous financial contributions from public, foundation and corporate supporters, which now amounts to $236.2 million, the American Red Cross will no longer engage in new fundraising activities for tsunami relief after January 26 th .
Many donations remain in “pledge” form and, while not yet received by the Red Cross, have been incorporated into funds deemed available for the relief effort. It is important for supporters to fulfill their pledged gifts, including completing special events, corporate matching gifts, and customer and employee donation programs currently planned. All donations made to the American Red Cross International Response Fund between December 26, 2004 and January 31, 2005, as well as funds designated for the tsunami relief effort, will be used to support the international response to those impacted by this devastating tsunami.
It is a well-known fact that, by far, the largest portion of the relief funds has come from the American people. Among the lessons to be learned from this tragedy, and one which does not seem to be getting much attention is that Americans have been the most generous not only because they are generous people, but because they have more to give. And they have more to give because they have a system of private property ownership and protection, which, while suffering serious erosion itself, provides for more comforts of life and more surplus to be shared with those in need, than another system on the face of this planet. It is a system that America’s Founders knew would provide unprecedented wealth and allow this nation to be a beacon, a light, and an example to the entire rest of the world so the rest of the world could see what we have and perhaps seek it for themselves.
During this past month there are those in America and in other lands who have insisted that America do more still, and that the government should force the American people to be “more generous” with their property (money) through even higher taxes. America’s Founders called this kind of thinking, which existed in their day in European countries, fallacious. They will not accept the fact that government has no legitimate authority to do this.
The Founders recognized that the people cannot delegate to their government the power to do anything except that which they have the lawful right to do themselves.
For example, every person is entitled to protection of his life and property. Therefore it is perfectly legitimate to delegate to the government the task of setting up a police force to protect the lives and property of all the people.
But suppose a kind-hearted man saw that one of his neighbors had two cars while another neighbor had none. What would happen if, in a spirit of benevolence, the kind man went over and took one of the cars from his prosperous neighbor and generously gave it to the neighbor in need? Obviously, he would be arrested for car theft. No matter how kind his intentions, he is guilty of flagrantly violating the natural rights of his prosperous neighbor, who is entitled to be protected in his property.
Of course, the two-car neighbor could donate a car to his poor neighbor, if he liked, but that is his decision and not the prerogative of the kind-hearted neighbor who wants to play Robin Hood.
But suppose the kind-hearted man decided to ask the mayor and city council to force the man with two cars to give one to his pedestrian neighbor. Does that make it any more legitimate? Obviously, this makes it even worse because if the mayor and city council do it in the name of the law, the man who has lost his car has not only lost the rights to his property, but (since it is the “law”) he has lost all right to appeal for help in protecting his property.
The American Founders recognized that the moment the government is authorized to start leveling the material possessions of the rich in order to have an “equal distribution of goods,” the government thereafter has the power to deprive any of the people of their “equal” rights to enjoy their lives, liberties, and property.
The power given to the government to take from the rich automatically cancels out the principle of “guaranteed equal rights.” It opens the floodgate for the government to meddle with everybody’s rights, particularly property rights.
One of the world’s foremost economists, Dr. Ludwig von Mises, pointed out that the preservation of private property has tremendous social implications as well as legal ramifications. He wrote:
“If history could prove and teach us anything, it would be the private ownership of the means of production as a necessary requisite of civilization and material well-being. All civilizations have up to now been based on private property. Only nations committed to the principle of private property have risen above penury and produced science, art, and literature. There is no experience to show that any other social system could provide mankind with any of the achievements of civilization.” (Ludwig von Mises, Socialism , Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1951, p. 583.)
Some people fail to understand the broad scope of property rights. It is more than protection of your home or land. Property is everything you have and own, including your wages, earnings, and accumulated savings. As Abraham Lincoln said:
“Property is the fruit of labor. Property is desirable, is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently to build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence…. I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good.” (Quoted in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, May 1955, p. 7.)
When government uses its power to tax to take more from you than it needs for its legitimate, constitutionally authorized powers, it is violating your property rights. When it uses your tax dollars in ways you have not authorized them to be used, whether at home or abroad, it is a violation of your property rights.
Where does this philosophy leave the poor, the needy, the suffering, and the unfortunate? Is there no room in such thinking for those who have less? Quite the contrary, the Founders said. The protection of property rights provides the very vehicle by which much more help can be extended than otherwise would be by government taxation. It provides a way to best comply with the commandment of God to care for the poor and the needy. And it will eventually generate much more surplus so that citizens can better fulfill the command of God to care for the needy. As Benjamin Franklin explained:
“To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity; it is godlike; but, if we provide encouragement for laziness, and supports for folly [through government welfare programs], may we not be found fighting against the order of God and Nature.. Whenever we attempt to amend the scheme of Providence, and to interfere with the government of the world, we had need be very circumspect, lest we do more harm than good.” (Smyth, Writings of Benjamin Franklin , 3:135.)
But, of course, the nagging question still remains. If it corrupts a society for the government to take care of the poor by violating the principle of property rights, who will take care of the poor? The answer of those who built America seems to be: “Anybody but the federal government.”
Americans have never tolerated the suffering and starvation which have plagued the rest of the world, but until the present generation help was given almost exclusively by the private sector or on the community or state level. President Grover Cleveland vetoed legislation in his day designed to spend federal taxes for private welfare problems. He wrote:
“I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people.
” The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.” (“Why the President Said No,” in Essays on Liberty, 12 vols., The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 1952-65, 3:255; emphasis added.)
In my own church congregation, where members were asked, in January, to be more generous if they possibly can to help the relief effort in southern Asia, it was very gratifying to know that many more donations were given than what was usual.
Truly, the Founders formula for freedom combined with the desire to be good and caring has led Americans once again to show the world an example of what can be done to solve the world’s problems.