What is the Proper Role of Government?
Recently, a mother and her daughter were being interviewed for possible enrollment in our charter high school. In the course of the conversation the mother asked, “When is breakfast served at your school?” When it was explained that we do not participate in such federal programs at our school, the mother turned to the daughter and exclaimed, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to eat breakfast at home before you come to school!”
At least two things are immediately apparent from this incident. First, these government programs are now so much a part of our society that it is considered normal to participate in them. Second, there seems to be less and less understanding that someone still has to pay for the “free lunch (breakfast).” With nearly half of the American population now on some sort of government dole, and the political parties getting more practice on getting them out to vote, it seems that the prediction of Alexander Tyler, made two hundred years ago, is being fulfilled yet again:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until [a majority of] the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse [gifts] from the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy [taxing and spending], always followed by a dictatorship. The average life of the world’s greatest civilizations has been two hundred years.”
A Modern Example of People, not Government, taking care of People
Ten years ago, the world witnessed an incredibly devastating event as a huge tsunami hit the shores of Southern Asia killing over 100,000 people. Pictures were flashed before us daily and hearts were touched. Who did not feel the need to extend a helping hand to these people? Who did not ask the question, “What more can I do?” And so, millions of people responded (not the government) and not only opened their hearts but also their checkbooks, proving that people can take care of the needs of people. 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 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 26th.
It is a well-known fact that, by far, the largest portion of the relief funds came from the American people themselves and not their government. There was no forcible extractions for the needy! Among the lessons to be learned from this tragedy, and one which did not seem to be getting much attention, is that Americans are the most giving, 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 any other 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 rest of the world so they could see what we have and perhaps seek it for themselves.
For several months thereafter there were who 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.
Government of the People Can Only Do What the People Can Rightfully Delegate
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.
How Governments Sometimes Commit “Legal” Crimes
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.
All Improving Civilizations Have Protected 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.)
Confiscatory and Graduated Taxes Constitute a Violation of Property Rights
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 of taxation 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.
Limited Government Proves to be the Best Way to Care for the Needy!
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.)
Caring for the Poor Without Violating Property Rights
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 our day, it is quite evident to every honest observer that government programs designed to provide equal things have only increased the number of people on poverty and, sadly, created an entitlement class almost too large to control.
Once again, the Founders had the right answer to our modern problems.
Earl Taylor, Jr.