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Morals and the Welfare State, Part 4


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ISN’T IT a strange thing that if you select any three fundamentally moral persons and combine them into a collective for the doing of good, they are liable at once to become three immoral persons in their collective activities? The moral principles with which they seem to be intuitively endowed are somehow lost in the confusing processes of the collective. None of the three would steal the cow from one of his fellow members as an individual, but collectively they all steal cows from each other. The reason is, I believe, that the welfare state — a confusing collective device which is believed by many to be moral and righteous — has been falsely labeled. This false label has caused the belief that the welfare state can do no wrong, that it cannot commit immoral acts, especially if those acts are approved or tolerated by more than half of the people, “democratically.”

This sidetracking of moral conduct is like the belief of an earlier day: The king can do no wrong. In its place we have now substituted this belief: The majority can do no wrong. It is as though one were to assert that a sheep which has been killed by a pack of wolves is not really dead, provided that more than half of the wolves have participated in the killing. All these excuses for immoral conduct are, of course, nonsense. They are nonsense when tested against the basic moral code of the five postulates. Thievery is thievery, whether done by one person alone or by many in a pack — or by one who has been selected by the members of the pack as their agent.

“Thou shalt not steal, except …”

It seems that wherever the welfare state is involved, the moral precept “Thou shalt not steal” becomes altered to say: “Thou shalt not steal, except for what thou deemest to be a worthy cause, where thou thinkest that thou canst use the loot for a better purpose than would the victim of the theft.”

And the precept about covetousness, under the administration of the welfare state, seems to become: “Thou shalt not covet, except what thou wouldst have from thy neighbor who owns it.”

Both of these alterations of the Decalogue result in complete abrogation of the two moral admonitions — theft and covetousness — which deal directly with economic matters. Not even the motto “In God we trust,” stamped by the government on money taken by force in violation of the Decalogue to pay for the various programs of the welfare state, can transform this immoral act into a moral one.

In a hurry to do good

Herein lies the principal moral and economic danger facing us in these critical times: Many of us, albeit with good intentions but in a hurry to do good because of the urgency of the occasion, have become victims of moral schizophrenia. While we are good and righteous persons in our conduct in our home community and in our basic moral code, we have become thieves and coveters in the collective activities of the welfare state in which we participate and which many of us extol.

Typical of our times is what usually happens when there is a major catastrophe, destroying private property or injuring many persons. The news circulates, and generates widespread sympathy for the victims. So what is done about it? Through the mechanisms of the collective, the good intentions take the form of reaching into the other fellow’s pocket for the money with which to make a gift. The Decalogue says, in effect: “Reach into your own pocket — not into your neighbor’s pocket — to finance your acts of compassion; good cannot be done with the loot that comes from theft.” The pickpocket, in other words, is a thief even though he puts the proceeds in the collection box on Sunday, or uses it to buy bread for the poor. Being an involuntary Good Samaritan is a contradiction in terms.

When thievery is resorted to for the means with which to do good, compassion is killed. Those who would do good with the loot then lose their capacity for self-reliance, the same as a thief’s self-reliance atrophies rapidly when he subsists on food that is stolen. And those who are repeatedly robbed of their property simultaneously lose their capacity for compassion. The chronic victims of robbery are under great temptation to join the gang and share in the loot. They come to feel that the voluntary way of life will no longer suffice for needs; that to subsist, they must rob and be robbed. They abhor violence, of course, but approve of robbing by “peaceful means.” It is this peculiar immoral distinction which many try to draw between the welfare state of Russia and that of Britain: The Russian brand of violence, they believe, is bad; that of Britain, good. This version of an altered Commandment would be: “Thou shalt not steal, except from nonresisting victims.”

Under the welfare state, this process of theft has spread from its use in alleviating catastrophe, to anticipating catastrophe, to conjuring up catastrophe, to the “need” for luxuries for those who have them not. The acceptance of the practice of thus violating the Decalogue has become so widespread that if the Sermon on the Mount were to appear in our day in the form of an address or publication, it would most likely be scorned as “reactionary, and not objective on the realistic problems of the day.” Forgotten, it seems, by many who so much admire Christ is the fact that he did not resort to theft in acquiring the means of his material benefactions. Nor did he advocate theft for any purpose — even for those uses most dear to his beliefs.

Progress of moral decay

Violation of the two economic Commandments — theft and covetousness — under the program of the welfare state, will spread to the other Commandments; it will destroy faith in, and observance of, our entire basic moral code. We have seen this happen in many countries. It seems to have been happening here. We note how immorality, as tested by the two economic Commandments, has been spreading in high places. Moral decay has already spread to such an extent that violations of all other parts of the Decalogue, and of the Golden Rule, have become accepted as commonplace — even proper and worthy of emulation.

And what about the effectiveness of a crime investigation conducted under a welfare state government? We may question the presumed capability of such a government — as distinct from certain investigators who are admittedly moral individuals — to judge these moral issues. We may also question the wisdom of bothering to investigate the picayune amounts of private gambling, willingly engaged in by the participants with their own money, when untold billions are being taken from the people repeatedly by the investigating agent to finance its own immoral program. This is a certain loss, not even a gamble.

Once a right to collective looting has been substituted for the right of each person to have whatever he has produced, it is not at all surprising to find the official dispensers deciding that it is right for them to loot the loot — for a “worthy” purpose, of course. Then we have the loot used by the insiders to buy votes so that they may stay in power; we have political pork barrels and lobbying for the contents; we have political patronage for political loyalty — even for loyalty to immoral conduct; we have deep freezers and mink coats given to political or personal favorites, and bribes for the opportunity to do privileged business with those who hold and dispense the loot. Why not? If it is right to loot, it is also right to loot the loot. If the latter is wrong, so also is the former.

If we are to accept Lord Acton’s axiom about the corrupting effect of power — and also the reasoning of Professor Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom about why the worst get to the top in a welfare state — then corruption and low moral standards in high political places should not be surprising. But when the citizens come more and more to laugh and joke about it, rather than to remove the crown of power and dismantle the throne, a nation is well on its way to moral rot, reminiscent of the fall of the Roman Empire and others.

Nor should we be surprised that there is some juvenile delinquency where adult delinquency is so rampant, and where the absence of any basic moral code among adults precludes even the possibility of their effectively teaching a moral code that will prevent delinquency in the young.

If, as adults, we practice collective thievery through the welfare state, and advocate it as right and good, how can we question the logic of the youths who likewise form gangs and rob the candy store? If demonstration is the best teacher, we adults must start with the practice of morality ourselves, rather than hiring some presumed specialist to study the causes of similar conduct among the youngsters; their conduct is the symptom, not the disease.

Thievery and covetousness will persist and grow, and the basic morals of ourselves, our children, and our children’s children will continue to deteriorate unless we destroy the virus of immorality that is embedded in the concept of the welfare state; unless we come to understand how the moral code of individual conduct must apply also to collective conduct, because the collective is composed solely of individuals. Moral individual conduct cannot persist in the face of collective immorality under the welfare state program. One side or the other of the double standard of morals will have to be surrendered.

The Welfare State Idea

The concept of the welfare state appears in our everyday life in the form of a long list of labels and programs such as: Social Security; parity or fair prices; reasonable profits; the living wage; the TVA, MVA, CVA; federal aid to states, to education, to bankrupt corporations; and so on.

But all these names and details of the welfare state program tend only to obscure its essential nature. They are well-sounding labels for a laudable objective — the relief of distressing need, prevention of starvation, and the like. But how best are starvation and distress to be prevented? It is well, too, that prices, profits, and wages be fair and equitable. But what is to be the test of fairness and equity? Laudable objectives alone do not assure the success of any program; a fair appraisal of the program must include an analysis of the means of its attainment.

The welfare state is a name that has been substituted as a more acceptable one for communism-socialism wherever, as in the United States, these names are in general disrepute.

The welfare state plan, viewed in full bloom of completeness, is one where the state prohibits the individual from having any right of choice in the conditions and place of his work; it takes ownership of the product of his labor; it prohibits private property. All these are done ostensibly to help those whose rights have been taken over by the welfare state.

But these characteristics of controlled employment and confiscation of income are not those used in promotion of the idea of the welfare state. What are usually advertised, instead, are the “benefits” of the welfare state — the grants of food and housing and whatnot — which the state “gives” to the people. But all these “benefits” are merely the other side of the forfeited rights to choose one’s own occupation and to keep whatever one is able to produce. In the same sense that the welfare state grants benefits, the slave-master grants to his slaves certain allotments of food and other economic goods. In fact, slavery might be described as just another form of welfare state, because of its likeness in restrictions and “benefits.”

Yet the state, as such, produces nothing with which to supply these “benefits.” Persons produce everything which the welfare state takes, before it gives some back as “benefits”; but in the process, the bureaucracy takes its cut. Only by thus confiscating what persons have produced can the welfare state “satisfy the needs of the people.” So, the necessary and essential idea of the welfare state is to control the economic actions of the vassals of the state, to take from producers what they produce, and to prevent their ever being able to attain economic independence from the state and from their fellow men through ownership of property.

To whatever extent an individual is still allowed freedom in any of these respects while living under a government like the present one in the United States, then to that extent the development of the program of the welfare state is as yet not fully completed. Or perhaps it is an instance of a temporary grant of freedom by the welfare state such as when a master allows his slave a day off from work to spend as he likes; but the person who is permitted some freedom by the welfare state is still a vassal of that state just as a slave is still a slave on his day off from work.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

This article originally appeared in volume 1 of Essays on Liberty, published in 1952 by The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

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    F.A. Harper (1905-1973) was the founder of The Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.