Friday, December 14, 2012

Are Government Welfare Programs Virtuous?

I've been wanting to put this in a post for a long time. You know how that goes, don't you? Things like this are put on the shelf in your mind for a while. They are "important" to you, but not enough to take the time right at that moment and do it are they? I have a lot of things on the mental shelf. Well, I'm taking this one off the shelf and actually getting it in a post. Yay me.

A typical question that is asked of me in conversations about government spending and welfare is "what's wrong with government programs that help people?" or "what is wrong with government welfare? doesn't it help people?" Those are typical questions. Maybe they're real questions, certainly it depends on the person asking, but usually it's a question masked as a spear to give my position a deathblow. I don't think it's a spear that gives a deathblow though. If it is even a spear it's a Lilliputian spear at best. Even so, it's an attack to make me look immoral or less moral than the person advocating government welfare.
Let's frame it. Person asks "how can you be against government programs? The govt is simply there to help people." How do I answer this? I give an answer that is actually quite long. I won't lie, it's lengthy, but a lot of ground must be covered. My answer is not totally original I have to admit. I constructed my answer with tools from Dinesh D'Souza. He had a debate with Michael Shermer on the existence of God and someone asked D'Souza a question in the Q and A section of the debate on morality and welfare. I thought his answer was really good, so good in fact, that I used some of it to make my argument better. It's not perfect at all, but I think it's a good argument against those who think conservatives and libertarians are immoral for opposing government welfare.

"how can you be against government programs? The govt is simply there to help people."
Okay, but which people? With whose money? With whose consent? And with what result? It's one thing for the government to help those who are truly needy: people who are poor, without self-reliance or reliance on family and friends. It's totally different for the government to take resources from one "middle-class" (I cringe to use that word) family to another "middle-class family." Examples: government builds a mass-transit system. People who drive cars must pay for the transportation tastes of those who prefer to take the subway. Another redistribution example is when the government funds the National Endowment of the Arts. I have to pay for those who wish to admire a portrait of a man's genitals? That is wrong. Typically these programs do not promote common welfare or public good, or the "Great Society" if you are a LBJ fan. What is a great society? Think about John Locke. On his view, we, i.e. society, enter into a social contract with each other and place ourselves under a government to protect ourselves from foreign and local thugs, and to protect our natural rights of life, liberty and property. Why would we want to join a society that seizes our resources without our consent and bestow them on other people? Government does have an important role to play I think. What is that role? To protect us from foreign and local thugs, protect our liberty, property, and help to those who are truly needy (those who can't help themselves, can't rely on family or friends). We shouldn't be embarrassed of that. Some people do not have family and friends to rely on. What's worse is that some people can't rely on a local private charity to give them a hand-up out of the abyss of true poverty. The problem with government aid though is that government doesn't have a "bottom line." There's no clear criteria for whether a program is working. In the private sector, there is a bottom line and it's easy to tell if a program is working or not working.

Also, there's the problem of coercion. Social Security is a good example here. What if I don't want to pay social security taxes? What if I want to rely on my own investments for my retirement? How would the government respond to this? They would respond by punishing me. I don't pay the fines. They show up to my door, threatening me and such. It could get ugly quickly. The government has the power of coercion. The private sector doesn't. The parking meter attendant, IRS, immigrant offical - these people have more power over me than the CEO of McDonalds or GE. Coercion is the nature of government, which if thought out shows that the government helping people is not a moral thing at all. It's actually immoral. I'll give you an example. I'm driving down the road. I notice some people on the sidewalk asking for money. I go to the local Kroger, buy non perishable groceries for the group of people on the sidewalk. I give them the groceries, they take them and hearts are warmed. They can't repay me because they don't know me and have no way of getting in contact with me. Maybe they will help someone else when they have the chance. What do we have here? A moral action. Selflessness. What happens if government gets involved? The government takes my groceries from me by force. The government then hands the groceries over to the needy people. Instead of feeling gratitude, the people feel entitled to this benefit. The involvement of the state has stripped the transaction of its moral value even though the result is exactly the same. Replace government with a guy who had a gun to my head. Same thing. Same result. It's not just. It's not moral. It's coercion. It's vice, not virtue.

One more thing. Human nature is the same in the private and public spheres. Typically people think of the private sector as greedy, selfish, etc. The same kind of people who work in the private sector work in the public sphere also. Human nature doesn't change when it's moved from the private sector to the public sector. It's the same self-interest, just a different currency: power instead of money, or both. It's operating outside its sphere for effectiveness. We cannot even pay for the programs it currently has. It needs to be limited so it can focus on what it's supposed to do. When it stretches out past its proper functions it invades the domain of the citizens, undermining our freedom and responsibility thus neglecting the government's first principles which are to protect the natural rights of society.

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