Amidst all the discussion and debate over the theological differences between Mormons and Protestants and Catholics, most everyone fails to focus on a critical issue: Are welfare-state programs consistent with Christian principles?
Suppose Peter’s elderly parents are ill and need medical attention. Suppose also that Peter has a friend who cannot afford to adequately feed, clothe, and educate his children.
Peter accosts Paul with a gun and forces him to withdraw $10,000 from his bank account. Peter uses $5,000 to purchase the needed medical care for his parents and he gives the other $5,000 to his friend. He doesn’t use any of the money for himself.
What can we say about Peter’s conduct? Libertarians would say that Peter has done something wrong — morally, legally, and religiously. He has taken money that didn’t belong to him without the consent of the owner. He has violated God’s commandment against stealing. He is a thief.
Peter responds, “Wait a minute! I haven’t done anything wrong. On the contrary, I helped out people who needed help. I didn’t use the money on myself. I’m a compassionate, caring person.”
Libertarians would disagree with Peter’s assessment of himself. He didn’t use his own money to help out people. He used the money that he forcibly took from Paul. He could have asked Paul for the money, either in the form of a donation or a loan, but he chose not to do that. He was “caring and compassionate” with the money that he stole from Paul.
I think that most conservative and liberal Christians would agree with that analysis. However, what changes for conservatives and liberals is when the government enters the picture. At that point, their moral and religious values change, while those of libertarians remain the same.
What is the fundamental feature of any welfare-state program? It’s that the government forcibly takes money from people through the taxing process and gives it to other people through the welfare-distribution process.
When it comes to moral and religious principles, the welfare-state program is no different from our hypothetical about Peter and Paul. The government forcibly seizes money from Paul, through the tax process, and gives it to Peter’s parents and friend to help with medical expenses, food stamps, clothing, and education.
Legally, the taking is permissible, which is one reason that conservatives and liberals approve of the process. They figure that if it’s legal, then it must be consistent with moral and religious principles.
For libertarians, on the other hand, just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s consistent with moral or religious principles.
Conservatives and liberals claim that welfare-state programs are different from our hypothetical because they have been enacted by the majority through the democratic process. For them, the fact that a law has been democratically enacted necessarily means that the welfare-state program must be consistent with religious and moral principles.
Not so, say libertarians, who hold that the freedom to do with one’s own money is a fundamental, God-given right which cannot legitimately be infringed upon by the majority. For libertarians, the right to do what one wants with his own money is as sacred as the right to worship God (or not) and the right to read whatever one wants.
Another part of this is the concept of free will. Conservative, liberal, and libertarian Christians would all hold that from a religious standpoint people should help out their parents and others in times of need. What distinguishes conservatives and liberals from libertarians, however, is that conservatives and liberals use the state to force people to make the right decision, while libertarians use the state to protect the exercise of the choice, even if it’s the wrong choice.
Let’s assume that there is no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education grants, or any other socialist program. There also is no income tax. People are free to keep everything they earn and decide what to do with the money. Let’s also assume that 10 percent of the population refuses to help their parents or others with voluntary donations of money.
Conservatives and liberals would call on the government to force those 10 percent to give money to the elderly and the poor. Since it’s morally and religiously wrong for people to turn their backs on their parents and the poor, conservatives and liberals argue, it is morally right for the state to force them to do the right thing.
Not so, say libertarians. Free will entails the right to say no. The state has no legitimate role in forcing people to share their money with others. Forcing people to make the right choice denigrates and destroys free will.
Conservatives and liberals also hold that welfare-state programs engender a sense of compassion and caring within society. The Congress, the president, the IRS, the federal judiciary, the Social Security Administration, the taxpayers, the voters, and, well, the American people are all considered to be good, caring, compassionate people because they are citizens of a welfare-state society.
Not surprisingly, libertarians disagree. They say that such values as compassion and charity can only come from the voluntary heart of an individual, not through the collective force of the political process. Moreover, libertarians argue that it is through the process of making decisions that such things as conscience, responsibility, and charity are strengthened within a society.
The issues that Americans should be discussing and debating are: What is the role of government in a free society? Should it be the role of government to forcibly take money from a person to whom it belongs in order to give it to another person? Is that role consistent with Christian principles? Is it consistent with moral principles? Is it consistent with freedom principles?
Once people arrive at the right answers to those questions, the direction our society should take becomes clear.