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Coerced Morality

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To relieve the suffering in the drought-stricken counties of Texas, Congress passed an appropriations bill, but it was vetoed by the president. In his veto message, the president stated: “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit…. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”

The year was 1887 and the president was Democrat Grover Cleveland.

How times have changed! Today, Texans are suffering under another scorching heat wave. But President Clinton’s answer is different from that of President Cleveland. Clinton recently announced that he was rushing $100 million to Texas. “In times of human crisis,” Mr. Clinton said, “we have an obligation to act.”

President Cleveland understood that charity had nothing to do with compulsion. The essence of human liberty was the right to help one’s neighbor or not. If a person was not free to reject his neighbor (and his God), then he could not truly be considered free. And Cleveland knew that if compassion was to mean anything, it had to come only from the willing heart of the individual. Thus, for government to force someone to share with his neighbor was considered a denigration of both liberty and morality.

President Clinton, on the other hand, believes that his sending hundreds of millions of dollars in government tax revenues to Texans is an act of charity and compassion by the American people. In other words, kindness among Americans is now reflected by the willingness of the IRS to seize their incomes and of government officials to send their money to the needy.

And under Clinton’s reasoning, every American – including those who would otherwise refuse to help – is converted into a good and moral person through the collective force of a democratic welfare government. Why, even the most selfish among us might be carried by his income-tax returns and the federal register all the way to Heaven!

Ultimately, the issue of government assistance to the needy is a moral one. Is it moral for government to seize one person’s money in order to give it to another? Is it moral for government to force someone to be good and caring?

But it is a psychological problem as well. Today, all too many Americans unfortunately have lost faith in themselves and in their fellow citizens. They honestly believe that kindness and compassion would disappear in America if government got out of the charity business and left morality and ethics to the voluntary choices of the American people. Dependence on the socialistic welfare state has caused people to forget the strong sense of self-reliance, self-esteem, and voluntary charity that characterized our ancestors.

Modern-day political debate in America should not center on whether there should be more or less government spending to help the needy. The debate should instead center on the role of government in a free society. The debate should revolve around who took the correct approach to suffering in Texas: Grover Cleveland, who said no to federal aid, or Bill Clinton, who said yes.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.