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Wards of the Government


The constitutions of former American slave states generally specified that the masters must provide their slaves with adequate housing, food, medical care, and old-age benefits. The Mississippi constitution contained this following additional sentence: “The legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves . . . [except] where the slave shall have rendered the State some distinguished service.”

The highest honor that Mississippi could offer a man for distinguished service to his country was personal responsibility for his own welfare! His reward was freedom to find his own job and to have his own earnings, freedom to be responsible for his own housing, freedom to arrange for his own medical care, freedom to save for his own old age. In short, his reward was the individual opportunities-and the personal responsibilities-that have always distinguished a free man from a dependent.

What higher honor can any government offer?

But many present-day Americans are trying to avoid this personal responsibility that is freedom. They are voting for men who promise to install a system of compulsory, government-guaranteed “security”-a partial return to the old slave laws of Georgia that guaranteed to all slaves “the right to food and raiment, to kind attention when sick, to maintenance in old age. . . .” And the arguments used to defend this present-day trend toward the bondage of a welfare state are essentially the same arguments that were formerly used to defend the bondage of outright slavery.

For example, many of the slave-holders claimed that they knew what was “best for the slaves.” After all, hadn’t the masters “rescued” the slaves from a life of savagery? The advocates of government-guaranteed “security” also claim that they know what is best for the people. Many of them argue in this fashion: “After all, haven’t the American people conclusively shown that they are incapable of handling the responsibility for their own welfare?”

Many of the slave-holders sincerely believed that the “dumb, ignorant slaves” would starve to death unless their welfare was guaranteed by the masters.

And the advocates of compulsory “security” frequently say: “Are you in favor of letting people starve?”

But as proof of the fact that personal responsibility for one’s own welfare brings increased material well-being, consider the emancipated slaves. Among them, there were old and crippled and sick people. They had no homes, no jobs, and little education. But-most precious of all-the former slaves were responsible for their own welfare. They were free . They had the privilege of finding their own security. . . .

The advocates of this compulsory “security” honestly seem to believe that most Americans . . . are too ignorant, or lazy, or worthless to be trusted with their own destiny; that they will literally starve in the streets unless their welfare is guaranteed by a “benevolent” government. However good their intentions may be, these disciples of a relief state are demanding that they be given the power to force mankind to follow their plans. In the name of liberty they advocate bondage!

This is true because the persons who receive support from the state are thereby led to expect-and then to demand-more support from the state. They become dependents. Thus they enter into a form of bondage. They lose their individual freedom of choice to whatever extent the state assumes responsibility for their personal welfare. In time, as is now the case in the welfare state of Russia, the people become completely subservient to the state. In effect, they become slaves of the “benevolent” government that has promised to solve all of their personal problems for them!

Admittedly, this is not the intent of the planners. Apparently, most of the advocates of government paternalism really believe that they are able to know and to do what is “best” for all of the people. Most of them may honestly desire to help the people. But their efforts always result in some form of bondage. . . .

In Russia we find another example of the fact that good intentions are no guarantee of freedom. For instance, in the beginning Lenin and Stalin probably had no desire whatever to bring slavery to Russia. Their announced plan was to free the Russian people from the slavery of an all-powerful government. But look what happened!

We Americans of today are following this same path toward the bondage of a welfare or slave state. Just as the law once guaranteed “adequate” medical care for American slaves, so a law to guarantee medical care for all Americans is being demanded today. And who will determine what is adequate medical care for a person? Not the person, but the government official who has the authority .

And jobs? Of course the government can guarantee every man a job-just as every slave was “guaranteed” a job; just as every Russian is “guaranteed” a job. But it is impossible, of course, for the government to guarantee everyone a job of his own choosing. Some persons must be guaranteed the scavenger jobs. They may not like it, but dependents have little choice.

It is true that many citizens in this country are old and crippled and sick and homeless. Possibly some of them are jobless through no fault of their own. The same conditions existed during our Revolutionary War. But our ancestors knew that their only hope for permanent security lay in their own individual efforts. They knew that the main purpose of government should be to protect whatever security the people were able to attain individually or in voluntary cooperation. They knew that electing or appointing a man to public office cannot endow him with wisdom; it can endow him only with power . Thus they took no chances on this power of government being used to encroach upon their individual liberties and their personal responsibilities. In advance, they put positive restrictions on all officeholders. And as a final guarantee of freedom, they specified that any powers not expressly given to the federal officials were to remain with the individual citizens and their local governments.

The American Constitution naturally did not list virtues-such as compassion, charity, and respect for one’s fellow man-as functions of government. The statesmen who founded our government knew that all virtues are purely personal and voluntary. It is utter nonsense to imagine that a person can be forced to be good. Government can and should use force to punish a person who commits a crime. But this same force cannot be used to create kindness and compassion within the mind and heart of any person.

Thus the authors of our Constitution left compassion and charity-aid to the unfortunate-on a strictly voluntary basis. They designed a form of government based on individual freedom, personal responsibility, and equality before the law for all citizens. Wisely, they made no attempt whatever to separate freedom of choice from the resulting reward or punishment, success or failure. Since they recognized the absurdity of passing laws to protect a person from himself, they left all citizens free to make their own decisions concerning their own personal welfare. From all viewpoints, including that of material security for the so-called common man, those decisions concerning the proper functions of government proved to be the most effective that the world has ever known in this field.

If this state-guaranteed “security” idea were new, it might help explain why so may people insist on trying it. But it is not new. It was written into the Code of Hammurabi over 4,000 years ago. In one form or another, it has been tried time and again throughout history-always with the same result. In the Roman Empire it was called “bread and circus.” More recently, Karl Marx called it socialism. He believed that the state should take “from each according to his abilities” and give “to each according to his needs.”

Marx said that it was the duty of government to provide all people with adequate housing, medical care, jobs, and social security. Word for word, the advocates of government “security” in this country are saying the same thing today.

And just as the Russians are enslaved to a welfare state, so this country is being carried into bondage by accepting the same false principle. Just as force is used in Russia to make the people conform to the security laws designed “for their own good,” so we also are now forced to submit to American security laws designed “for our own good.” And just as the Russian state punishes any objector, so the American state will now imprison us if we refuse to conform.

If you doubt that compulsory socialism has gone to that extreme in this country, just test it, for instance, by refusing to pay the social security tax that is taken from your salary. The government will do the same thing to you that it did to the owner of a small battery shop in Pennsylvania who balked at the idea of compulsory social security. First, the state confiscated his property. Still he refused to obey. Then the state preferred criminal charges against him. And in January of 1943, the government gave him the choice of conforming or going to prison as a criminal-an enemy of the state because he refused to pay social security! He paid. And his six-months prison sentence was suspended. . . .

Along about then, the advocates of government-guaranteed “security” may begin to understand the inevitable results of their ideas. They may realize that it is power that makes a dictator, and not what he’s called or how he’s elected. When that fact has become obvious to everyone, the advocates of compulsory “security” will then exclaim: “But we didn’t mean this!” It will be too late to turn back at that point. Just as the night follows the day, so government aid to the individual is followed by government control of the individual, which necessarily means government force against the individual. Fortunately, it is not yet too late for America to turn away from the evil that is a welfare state, a slave state. But, unfortunately, there is no simple or easy way to do it. Both major political parties . . . seem to be trying to outbid each other by promising more government housing, more social security, more “free” medical care, more government “welfare” projects, and more special privileges to various groups and interests.

Most of our movies, magazines, newspapers, and radio programs generally endorse-directly or indirectly-the idea of some form of government-guaranteed “security.” Even the few objections seem to be aimed mostly at poor administration instead of a recognition that the theory is wrong in principle.

And, whether we like it or not, many of the instructors in our schools and colleges are teaching the desirability of the relief state, the “planned economy,” and government ownership in general.

Finally, even some of our church leaders are teaching that the force of government should be used to make people charitable and good. Some of these Christian leaders seem to have forgotten that the principles of the Good Samaritan and each individual doing unto others as he would have others do unto him are voluntary principles. In many cases, these principles have now been discarded for this evil slogan: “It is the duty of government to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, to aid the unfortunate, and to build houses for those who need them.” Probably one of the main reasons for the declining influence of the church is that the church is defaulting on many of its own responsibilities by turning them over to government. Many of our church leaders are rendering unto Caesar that which does not belong to Caesar.

But the politicians, periodicals, schools, and churches generally reflect the opinions of the persons who support them. Thus the final decision rests on the attitude of each individual American. If enough of us accept the degrading idea of a welfare state-a relief state, a slave state-the process will soon be completed. But if enough individual Americans desire a return to the personal responsibility that is freedom, we can have that too.

Before choosing, however, consider this: When one chooses freedom-that is, personal responsibility-he should understand that his decision will not meet with popular approval. It is almost certain that he will be called vile names when he tries to explain that compulsory government “security”-jobs, medicine, housing, and all the rest-is bad in principle and in its total effect; it saps character and strength by encouraging greed and weakness; it destroys the individual’s God-given responsibility for self-help, respect, compassion, and charity; in some degree, it automatically turns all who accept it into wards of the government; it will eventually turn a proud and responsible people into cringing dependence upon the whims of an all-powerful state; it is the primrose path to serfdom.

No, the choice is not an easy one. But then, the choice of freedom never has been easy. It never will be easy. Since this capacity for personal responsibility-freedom-is God’s most precious gift to mankind, it requires the highest form of understanding and courage.

Dean Russell delivered this speech in 1950.

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    Dean Russell was a member of the staff at The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.