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Hornberger's Blog is a daily libertarian blog written by Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of FFF.
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What Do Food Stamps Have to Do With Compassion for the Poor?


One of the things that fascinate me about progressives is how government welfare programs make them feel about themselves. The fact that progressives support such programs makes them feel like they are good, caring people. What’s also fascinating is that when a libertarian or anyone else opposes the existence of such programs, progressives automatically conclude that that person must be heartless and uncaring.

Consider, for example, an arch-typical welfare-state program, one that every single progressive ardently supports: food stamps. Under this welfare-state program, the government gives stamps to poor people, which they then use to purchase food at grocery stores. The grocery store presents the food stamps to the government for redemption.

Let’s examine what’s actually happening here.

The government is not a magic machine, and it is not a fountain of wealth. In order to get the money to pay for the food stamps, it taxes people.

Let’s say we’re dealing with a poor person named Peter. The government decides to give him $100 in food stamps each month to help him out. In order to get the money to pay the grocery store when it redeems the food stamps, the government imposes a tax of $100 on a rich person named Paul

Now, let’s add a progressive named John to the scene. He’s cheering this entire process. But notice something important here: That’s all that John is doing. He’s not using his own money to help out Peter. He’s simply cheering the fact that Paul is being forced to help Peter.

Pray tell: How in the world does the government’s decision to tax Paul to pay for Peter’s food make John a caring, compassionate person? Why does John feel that this makes him a caring, compassionate person? He hasn’t used any of his own money to help out Peter. All he’s done is cheer the fact that someone else — a rich person — is having his money forcibly taken from him and used to help out a poor person.

Why doesn’t John use his own money to help Peter? Wouldn’t that reflect his compassion and concern for Peter much better than his simply cheering when the government forces John to do so?

In fact, it’s difficult for me to see how compassion and caring enter into a welfare-state program. For one thing, it’s entirely founded on force — the force that comes with taxation itself. After all, only the most naïve consider the payment of taxes to be voluntary. If you don’t pay your taxes, the government will forcibly seize your home, bank accounts, and other assets and use them to satisfy the tax bill.

Moreover, it’s difficult to know exactly who the caring, compassionate person is in this process. Is it the IRS agent who receives and processes people’s withholding taxes? The employer who does the withholding? The members of Congress, who keep the income tax and welfare state in effect? The president, who supports the programs? The Supreme Court, which upholds the constitutionality of the programs? The taxpayers, whose money is being taken from them to pay for the food stamps? The voters, who elect the public officials who keep the food-stamp program in existence. The citizenry, who live under a welfare state? Children, whose parents have brought the welfare state into existence? Or people who cheer the process?

What about people who oppose such programs, such as libertarians? Progressives consider them heartless. They say the fact that libertarians oppose food stamps and other welfare-state programs constitutes conclusive proof that libertarians hate the poor — that they’re selfish, mean, and uncaring.

Suppose that a libertarian donates 10 percent of his income to his church and to organizations that help the poor. What would the progressive say about him? He would say that such donations mean nothing. The fact that the libertarian wants to repeal all welfare-state programs says it all. Even if he is donating 10 percent — 20 percent — or even all of his income — to charitable organizations, the progressive would say that the donor is a no-good, selfish, uncaring person because he opposes the welfare state.

So, you have this strange anomaly. A progressive who gives not one single dime of his own money to the poor looks upon himself as a good, caring, compassionate person because he cheers when the government taxes the rich and gives the money to the poor. And the progressive views a libertarian who gives a lot of his money to the poor as selfish, uncaring, and disdainful of the poor because he opposes the concept of a welfare state.

In a era in which rising federal spending, taxes, debt, and monetary debasement have become a permanent part of American life, the fundamental moral issue that the American people should be confronting is: Is it a proper role of government in a free society to force people to help the poor or anyone else, and how does the use of force make the people in that society caring and compassionate?

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.