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Don’t Fund Religious Groups

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President Bush just doesn’t get it.

He may say, repeatedly, that the surplus belongs to the people and push for a modest tax cut, but if he really believed his own words, he wouldn’t be proposing to spend the taxpayers’ money on social-welfare activities performed by religious organizations.

Mr. Bush makes a spurious appeal to fairness in proposing that these groups be given our money. A proclamation at the White House website states that religious organizations “have traditionally been distant from government.and typically have been neglected or excluded in Federal policy. Our aim is equal opportunity for such groups, a level playing field, a fair chance for them to participate when their programs are successful.”

He heaps high praise on those groups. But has it occurred to him that their success may have something to do to with their distance from government? Yet he proposes to close that distance. We already know what happens when private groups get too close to government. They lose their autonomy. It’s the oldest principle in the world. Conditions follow cash. That’s why the Bush program has not been embraced with the enthusiasm he must have anticipated.

Moreover, there is no way that the program can avoid funding religion — which is anathema in a free society. The Bush folks assure us the money won’t be used this way, but they are being disingenuous. Earlier, when the administration (properly) stopped the flow of taxpayer money to international organizations that provide abortion services, it correctly pointed out that it doesn’t matter that those groups don’t use the money directly for abortion-related activities because money is fungible. Suddenly the word “fungible” has vanished from the administration’s vocabulary. Yet the fact remains that if a religious social-service organization gets taxpayer money to, say, feed the poor, other money will be freed up for ecclesiastical work. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar. The program may not survive a constitutional test — nor should it.

But isn’t it unfair, as the administration says, that secular groups can get taxpayer money but not religious groups? Shouldn’t this anti-religious bias end? The answer to both questions is yes.

But the proper way to end the discrimination is to stop the subsidies to the secular groups!

In a free society individuals should be left free to make their own decisions about whom to help and how. Americans historically have been immensely generous. The richer our society has gotten, the more generous they have become. This was as true in the 19th century, when there was no income tax and therefore no deduction, as it is today. Americans are people of goodwill and they show it by lending a hand to people who have had a hard time.

Moreover, as historian David Beito shows in his book From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, even low-income Americans were ingenious at setting up mutual-aid societies, such as lodges, that provided various kinds of “safety net” benefits when misfortune struck. It was government that effectively ran these marvelous institutions out of business by providing similar benefits “free” — that is, through force: taxation. Government’s shameful record in displacing self-help with inferior politically inspired programs is well-documented by Beito. Not only has the expenditure of trillions of tax dollars not eradicated “poverty” as promised, it has corrupted a nation of people who once looked to themselves, not government, to improve their own lot.

The Bush program now goes further in this direction by proposing measures that will corrupt hitherto independent organizations. Nothing good can come out of this program. By luring independent groups onto the welfare plantation it sadly reinforces the very principles that have transformed this country from a proud republic of individualists into a welfare state. Bush is getting high marks from conservatives, but one suspects they are marking on a curve. Subsidizing religious social-welfare organizations, rather than ending the subsidies to secular groups, is nothing to rave about. It goes against every principle conservatives say they support.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.