On the Ethical Promotion of the General Welfare
“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Lord.” —Leviticus 19:15-16
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The General Welfare: What It Is and Is Not
James Madison, in Federalist 41, plainly states that the General Welfare Clause of the Constitution is tied to the Enumeration of Powers. The powers listed limit the federal government’s role, preventing it from becoming too powerful.
As Madison explains, the power the Constitution bestows “to lay and collect taxes . . . and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States” is elaborated in the Enumeration of Powers. Quoth Madison, “Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, [Congress could claim] authority to legislate in all possible cases.” So, the General Welfare Clause requires limitation in scope, and the Enumerated Powers Clause accomplishes this. “Nothing is more natural nor common,” continues Madison, “than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.”
A Fly in the Ointment: The Sixteenth Amendment
A major challenge to the Founders’ concept of limited government has come in the Sixteenth Amendment. The text of the amendment reads as follows: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” In essence, this simple text—proposed and argued for by early Progressives—has facilitated the federal government’s graduated-income-tax plan that helps the poor by harming middle- and upper-income groups. This unfair method of taxation is not mandated by the amendment, nor is it prohibited.
Since the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment, in 1913, there has been government-enforced wealth redistribution from those who work harder to those who work less hard, or not at all, thus changing the balance of incentives in America. From 1913 on, America’s economic activity as a percentage of the world economy has been in steady decline, largely due to the fact that working hard has been rewarded less while not working hard has been rewarded more. And, indeed, a progressive Democrat Party has made certain that activist jurists have been appointed to the courts who are willing to rule that redistribution is now legal, based upon the tax authority of the government under the Sixteenth Amendment (much as the Supreme Court ruled Obamacare legal, on June 28, 2012).
Why Redistributive Taxation Is Theft
Non-redistributive taxation is not theft, since it returns to every taxpayer the equal protection of the US military or the local police, equal use of government-built highways or roads, equal benefits in the enjoyment of postal delivery, etc. There is a quid pro quo exchange, in which every taxpayer is extended a benefit in return for the tax money paid. Redistributive taxation, however, is quite a different matter.
Ever since the income tax was adopted, the US government has been given a free hand to steal from Americans. Under the income tax, some people benefit more than others; in fact, some are punished. Taking money coercively from one individual under threat of violence (government effectively forces compliance at gunpoint), in order to use it for the sole benefit of another, is basic theft.
Having a law that legalizes the theft does not change the immoral nature of government-sponsored discrimination against a class—or classes—of individuals for the purpose of harming them, with malice-aforethought, in order that the politicians who created the immoral law might buy the future votes of those at its receiving end. Thus, elected officials author the corruption, in the first place; while morally weak voters are tempted into participating in it, in the second. And the process of unethical leadership corrupting the most vulnerable members of the public has begun.
The Principle of Agency and How Coercing the Law-Abiding Violates It
The Principle of Agency involves the notion that government is to serve the people. For example, if some citizens want to hire protective services, so they might leave their property unattended from time to time, they might hire a sheriff to act as their agent in doing so. Protection of property is a legal action for people to exercise, so it is also legal for the sheriff to perform this duty as their agent. The sheriff is not legally superior to the people he serves, but merely carries out a legal function in their stead. He has been deputized to carry out a protective role, but it is a role that each citizen has the right to exercise for him- or herself.
So, according to the Principle of Agency, government is not superior to the people—not above the law—but must follow the same laws and ethical principles the people follow. As the people’s agent and servant, this also means that, if there is an action that is illegal for citizens to carry out, it is likewise illegal for the government to do so.
Thus, if it is illegal for me to enter your house, take your money, and redistribute it to others I feel are more deserving, it is illegal for government, as my agent (or yours), to do the same. Government redistribution is an act of stealing, because the gains are unethically coerced from you at gunpoint. (Government power rests on the ability make arrests at gunpoint; it is equal to your right of citizen-arrest, but you only enjoy this right if an unethical crime has been committed.) Also, it might stand mentioning that your “deserving” neighbors may be less wealthy because they chose not to go to college, or chose not to work as hard as you did, or chose to do drugs that disabled them, etc.
Redistribution Should Always Be Uncoerced
Of course, uncoerced charity is not theft. When people decide for themselves what they can afford, the government does not end up hurting some to help others (the act of deciding to harm people, based on their income levels, is highly unethical). People deciding for themselves how much they can give is ethical and protects their ability to save for old age or to support family members who need help.
When government intentionally disables people financially, they rob people of their ability to perform moral acts of caring—for themselves or their family members. People become, necessarily, less moral. They stop donating generously to faith-based organizations. And everyone is forced into converting allegiances from their families and their worship communities to Big Brother. The old religion dies out and gives way to the new religion—Big Government. People stop looking out for each other and stop being grateful to one another for help. Many loving, interpersonal relationships, where there had once been mutual care, are shattered and replaced with unfeeling, state-dependent relationships. And the American spirit begins to evolve into a new attitude, where privileges issued by the state become valued above God-given rights. What use are rights, the reasoning goes, when it is government-bestowed privileges upon which everything depends?
What the Welfare State Hath Wrought
One dysfunction created by this post-welfare-state reorientation is that neighbors who once donated to local charities can no longer do that. This means less involvement in local charities. And neighbors involved in local charities have often proven valuable in recognizing where job openings are and knowing who could fill them: “Hey, Al,” says a soup-line worker to a luckless food recipient, “you’re a mechanic; and I just happen to know they need one at the auto shop nearby, so why don’t you apply?” This front-line charitable activism is now all but extinct!
When government runs charity, bureaucrats administering programs want to keep their job security. This means their incentive is to do as little to help people as possible. Otherwise, poverty reduction necessitates trimming the bureaucracy. Also, employing unionized government workers is expensive. The majority of tax money collected for welfare programs is paid to support overhead costs, including labor, while charities like the Salvation Army spend five percent or less on overhead! Government redistribution takes much more money than private charity ever would and offers less help in return.
Restoring Government’s Limited Role
It would be a much more free and moral world if Americans would return to the ethic of hard work and rugged independence responsible for growing America into the strongest economic force ever known. As things stand, abundance is fast turning into scarcity, and the can-do work attitude is evolving into a can-take entitlement mindset. If this continues, Progressives will achieve nothing less than the destruction of our American republic, having successfully turned on its head the principle of limited government that has promoted freedom and morality since America’s founding.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by EagleRising.com