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Has Compassion Gone Astray?


As part of his presidential-campaign theme of “compassionate conservatism,” Texas Gov. George W. Bush recently announced nearly $500,000 in state-financed grants to Christian groups in Texas. “America will be changed because people of faith and good heart are willing to help people in need,” Bush said. “I believe rallying the armies of compassion, thanking the soldiers in the armies of compassion, is the next bold step in welfare reform.”

Bush failed to explain, however, exactly who are the saints in the grant-making process-the state legislature, tax collectors, judges, sheriffs, the taxpayers, or the governor himself.

Here’s how the system works. The state of Texas imposes sales and property taxes on the people of Texas. These taxes are not voluntary. For example, if a person refuses to pay his property tax, the state effects recovery of the tax by foreclosing a tax lien on the person’s property. If the property owner continues to refuse to pay the tax, his property is sold at a foreclosure sale, and a state judge issues a writ of possession to the new owner. Law-enforcement officials serve the writ on the now-former owner and force him to vacate the property. If he refuses to vacate and instead decides to resist forcibly, he most likely will find himself in the hereafter for “resisting arrest.”

When Governor Bush uses tax monies to assist Christian groups, is he acting compassionately? All that he has done is distribute money that the state has forcibly taken from other people. How does that make the governor a compassionate person? Doesn’t compassion connote the willing use of one’s own money for benevolent purposes?

What about the members of the Texas legislature? Does their mere enactment of sales or property taxes convert them into compassionate people?

Tax collectors, judges, and law-enforcement personnel? Does their use of force to recover the taxes entitle them to share in the collective compassion?

What about the Texas people? Since they paid the taxes, are they entitled to claim a pro rata share of the collective goodness? What about those who didn’t like paying their taxes? Are they nevertheless to be considered soldiers in Governor Bush’s army of compassion?

Let’s ask a different question: Can Governor Bush’s conduct be reconciled with religious principles?

Suppose a thief robs you of your money and tells you that he’s donating the money to a local church. Wouldn’t you still consider him a thief even though he was helping Christians with the money he had stolen from you? Wouldn’t you still expect him to be criminally prosecuted for the robbery?

What church pastor, knowing that the money had been stolen, would accept it? Wouldn’t ministers refuse the money and advise the thief to return it to its proper owner?

Is the process different, in moral terms, when Governor Bush assists people with the money that has been taxed from the people of Texas?

The Christian who supports and participates in this process must ask himself some uncomfortable moral questions. Is it morally permissible to use the force of the state to take money from a person to whom it belongs in order to give it to another person? Can a private act of immorality be converted into a moral deed simply by making it legal? Is the Christian who supports this process actually sanctioning a violation of Christian principles rather than participating in a charitable process?

How can compassion mean anything unless it comes from the willing heart of an individual? If a person is forced to commit an act of kindness, how can he truly be considered to have acted compassionately? For that matter, doesn’t God’s great gift of free will entail the right to say “No”-the right to reject one’s neighbor?

How can the conscience of an individual be expected to develop when decisions on whether to love one’s neighbor or not are made at the ballot box and as part of the political process?

Modern-day political campaigns provide politicians with the opportunity to garner votes by being charitable with the tax monies that have been forcibly extracted from the citizenry. Why not separate compassion and the state and restore moral decision-making to individuals?

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    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.