When I first discovered libertarianism in the late 1970s, I came across an essay entitled “Not Yours to Give.” The essay was published by The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, where I would go to work as program director in 1987.
The essay had a big impact on me because it explained in a very simple, easy-to-understand way why it was morally wrong for the federal government to help people in need. That was a big revelation for me, given that I was a liberal Democrat in my hometown of Laredo, Texas. Before I discovered libertarianism, I couldn’t understand how anyone could object to government helping people who needed help. After all, I figured, it was the government’s money.
In 1827, Davy Crockett had been elected to Congress from the state of Tennessee. The essay revolved around his race for reelection in 1829. It would be difficult to find a better explanation as to how our nation has abandoned its founding principles. Given that the mid-term elections are next week, the central message in that essay is particularly timely.
(Crockett ended up moving to Texas, which is where I was born and raised and where I lived around half my life. Growing up, Crockett was one of my heroes, given that he had died at the Alamo. Thus, the essay had an even bigger impact on me than would otherwise have been the case.)
As Crockett was campaigning for reelection, he encountered a farmer named Horatio Bunce. Crockett asked him for his vote. Bunce politely responded that although he had voted for Crockett two years before, he would not vote for him again.
Taken aback, Crockett asked why. Bunce told him that Crockett’s support of a particular bill demonstrated that Crockett had no understanding of the Constitution, which meant that he wasn’t qualified to be in Congress.
Mystified, Crockett responded that he could think of no bill that he had supported that violated the Constitution.
Bunce reminded him that he had supported a bill that provided $20,000 to help people in Washington, D.C., who had lost their homes in a fire.
Crockett acknowledged that he had supported the bill. He said that the Treasury was overflowing and that he felt that helping those struggling families was the right thing to do.
Bunce pointed out that the Constitution does not authorize Congress to appropriate funds to help out needy people. He said that Crockett and other members of Congress should have used their own personal funds to help out the families. In other words, monies raised by taxes were “not yours to give.”
Crockett immediately recognized the validity of Bunce’s point. He vowed never to do it again. Bunce said that if Crockett would tell people publicly that he was wrong to do it, he would not only vote for him again, he would also try to get other people to vote for him as well. A week later, Bunce organized a campaign event for Crockett in which there were 1,000 people in attendance. Crockett publicly acknowledged the validity of Bunce’s point and vowed never again to support a congressional appropriation to help out people in need.
That essay had an enormous impact on my thinking. For one thing, it demonstrated the importance of adhering strictly to principle. If Bunce had instead said, “I think the amount that you gave those families was excessive,” the essay would have have had no impact on me. It was because Bunce was unwavering in his commitment to principle that the essay impacted me so deeply.
Another factor was Bunce’s willingness to tell the truth about this sort of thing. He didn’t mince words. He was direct and unequivocal. It was clear to me that this is why the point that he was making was able to pierce Crockett’s mindset and cause him to recognize immediately that what he had done was wrong.
“Not Yours to Give” demonstrates why it is imperative that we libertarians continue adhering strictly to principle and that we continue speaking the truth about America’s welfare state, which came into existence in the 1930s. Given that it’s wrong for Congress to give taxpayer money to struggling families in Washington, D.C., it is equally wrong for Congress to give money to people for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education grants, food stamps, public housing, corporate bailouts, subsidies, and for all other welfare-state programs.