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Hurricane Harvey: Charity vs. Welfare


The leftist shibboleth that undergirds America as a welfare state is that Americans, if left to their own choices, would never voluntarily help out others to a sufficient degree. Given such, it is necessary, liberals say, for the state to enter the picture and force Americans to do their moral duty.

That’s what Social Security is all about — forcing people to care for others. No, there is no retirement fund, and there never has been one. Social Security is based on the state’s forcible taking of money from younger people through taxation and then giving the money to seniors to fund their retirement.

Why not simply leave young people free to make that decision on their own? Why not leave children free to decide for themselves whether to help their parents and to what extent? Why not leave it to Americans in general to decide whether to donate to organizations that would help seniors whose children won’t help them or, for whatever other reason, lack the ability to help themselves?

The welfare state shibboleth explains it: Americans can’t be trusted with such a decision because everyone “knows” that they would fail the test.

Of course, it’s not just Social Security. The welfare state also encompasses Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, FDIC, welfare, food stamps, corporate bailouts, public schooling, and a myriad of other programs that are based on forced funding.

This week the New York Times carried an interesting editorial about private charity and Hurricane Harvey. The editorial begins with a statement that seemly contradicts the liberal welfare-state shibboleth:

It’s admirable that Americans’ first instinct when disaster occurs is to open their wallets and volunteer their time. Since this has never been a nation that relies wholly on government to take care of those in need, citizens’ first impulse is to pitch in, whatever their politics or faith.

As the first images of suffering emerged from Houston, the flow of cash, food, clothing and rescue equipment into Texas seemed to rise in tandem with the floodwaters.

The Times then advises Americans though to take care with respect to their donations:

Yet it’s inevitable that not all this largess will reach Harvey’s victims, or be well spent. For that reason, it is important for Americans to be as discerning with their money as they are philanthropic, avoiding scams and asking for greater accountability from trusted charities like the American Red Cross.

The Times’ admonishment raises an important point about private charity, one that distinguishes it from government welfare: When people become dissatisfied with how a private charity is using their money, they have an immediate remedy: They can stop donating. Sometimes it’s a way to get the charity to become more efficient with the monies that are being donated to it.

What about welfare? Since welfare-state funding is by force, the same principle doesn’t apply. If people become dissatisfied with how the government is doling out its Social Security payments, they are not permitted to stop paying their Social Security taxes. If they do stop paying their taxes, they are prosecuted, incarcerated, and fined and also have their assets seized to cover the amount of the taxes, interest, and penalties.

The moral questions, of course, are: Why shouldn’t Americans be free to keep all their earnings and decide for themselves what to do with them? Why should they be forced to fund any charitable activity, including aid to seniors, aid to the poor, aid to churches, and aid to hurricane victims? Why not simply leave them free to make all decisions relating to charity? Why not separate charity and the state in the same way our ancestors separated church and state?

The answer lies in the liberal shibboleth that underlies the welfare state: Americans just can’t be trusted to do the right thing, the liberals say. They have to be forced to do so by the politically elite who enact and enforce welfare-state programs.

But even if that’s true — even if Americans can’t be trusted to come to the assistance of those who need it — that still doesn’t address the core issue — freedom. Why shouldn’t people be free to say no when it comes to helping others?

What does it really mean to be free? Does it mean being forced to do the right thing? Does it mean being forced to care for others? Does it mean being forced to be good and responsible?

Actually, it means none of those things. Freedom entails the right to say no. It entails the right to be uncharitable, irresponsible, selfish, self-centered, bad, immoral, and uncaring, so long as a person keeps his conduct within the realm of peaceful and non-fraudulent activity. When people are not free to make the “wrong” decision, then they cannot truly be considered free.

That’s in fact why our American ancestors, when they founded the United States, decided to bring into existence a society in which there was no welfare state and no income tax. They wanted a society in which people were free to decide issues relating to charity on an entirely voluntary basis. They wanted people to keep what they earned and decide for themselves what to do with their money. Their decision to bring into existence that type of society was based not so much on trust in people to do the right thing but rather a desire to establish a free society with respect to charity — that is, a society in which people were not forced to help out others but instead free to make that decision on their own.

The irony is that notwithstanding slavery and various other infringements on liberty, our American ancestors ended up bringing into existence the freest, most prosperous, and most charitable nation in history. Too bad 20th-century Americans threw it all away with their decision to adopt a welfare-state way of life.

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.