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If Liberty Mattered — Once More, a Presidential Candidate’s Press Conference, Part 7

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The Wall Street Journal: Mr. Candidate, in your last answer, you said that you opposed Robert Dole’s proposal for housing vouchers as a substitute for government-provided public housing. Yet, isn’t the voucher system an effective alternative to direct government control? Doesn’t it at least return a degree of control over decision making to the taxpayers themselves and reduce the power of government in directly determining social outcomes?

The Candidate: Proposals for voucher programs are an indication of how frustrated people have become over the heavy-handedness and failure of government intervention in and preemption of people’s decisions concerning their own lives and the problems in society that often seem to cry out for solution. Unfortunately, voucher schemes suffer from two fundamental problems from the point of view of individual liberty: first, they are built on the premise that government has a legitimate role in these aspects of private and social life; and second, they threaten either to extend government control over areas of the private sector that have remained fairly free of governmental oversight or to increase the degree of regulation beyond what is already in place. Let’s take an example.

On May 23, 1996, Robert Dole delivered a speech in Philadelphia in which he proposed what he called a “charity tax credit.” He argued that the federal government’s welfare programs have been a disaster — that they have failed to eliminate poverty and, even worse, have severely weakened the family unit and undermined the work ethic among many of the poor. Mr. Dole argued that better ways need to be found to restore the family as the foundation of society and to devise ways of helping the poor that do not rely on the “cold bureaucracy” of big government.

He proposed that taxpayers be allowed “to earmark a portion of their annual taxes to private and religious charities . . . that spend over 75 percent of their money on poverty relief. This credit will be up to $500 for individuals,” he said, “and up to $1,000 for couples.”

In The Wall Street Journal a few days later, on May 28, John C. Goodman, president of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, explained how a voucher program like Mr. Dole’s might work:

“Under taxpayer choice, government would continue to force people to give their fair share [for charity] through income taxes. However, individual taxpayers rather than politicians would be able to allocate their welfare dollars to any qualified institution — public or private. . . . The theory behind taxpayer choice is that individuals are required to devote a percentage of their income to the relief of poverty, but they can choose the receiving organization. In other words, government chooses the amount that must be given; taxpayers choose the recipient.”

Mr. Goodman pointed out that many organizations to which people presently contribute (as a tax-deductible donation) are research institutes, public policy think tanks, and organizations sponsoring the arts. As a result, the government would have to more narrowly define which organizations would be covered under the charity-voucher program. “The goal would be to define a ‘qualified charity’ and to assure that all taxpayer-choice donations went to traditional welfare activities,” Goodman argued. “Internal Revenue Service scrutiny would be maintained.”

In making his proposal, Mr. Dole said: “Our faith in the Great Society has ended but our moral duties to the poor have not.” But what type of morality is it when it is the state that shall, in Mr. Goodman’s words, “continue to force people to give their fair share through income taxes” under a system in which “government chooses the amount that must be given; taxpayers choose the recipient”?

Imagine that every month after being paid, you’re waylaid by a highwayman who robs you of a large portion of your income and then distributes the plunder among those who are part of his gang of followers. He assures you every month that he is doing it because those around him are needy and deserving. The only reason he robs you of this portion of your wealth, he says, is because you have a moral duty to care for the material well-being of these people; but you cannot be trusted to voluntarily give the “fair share” of your earnings that is their just due.

Sensing your growing anger at having more and more of your income stolen from you, as well as your growing cynicism about his desire to help “the poor,” the highwayman becomes fearful that you might start resisting his thievery. He continues to remind you of your moral duty to help the poor.

So, he changes his procedure. When he now stops you by the road, he commands you to take the money out of your pocket and introduces you to a dozen people whom he has selected as the recipients of this redistributed wealth. You are told that you may now choose, from among these dozen people, the ones to whom you will give portions of that amount of your income you are still ordered to part with. See, the highwayman says, you are now deciding how your money is to be spent — for what and for whom.

The highwayman is still guaranteeing that you are doing your moral duty toward your fellow men, but instead of his “cold bureaucratic hand” allocating the money, he has introduced “efficiency”: the twelve recipients must now “compete” for portions of that amount of your income that the highwayman is coercing you to give up. As the “tax-man,” the highwayman will scrutinize both you and them to make sure the money is appropriately spent for the right types of causes and for the right types of people.

But morality is an act of conscience and will. It is the conduct of a human being weighing in his mind what he believes to be “the right” and “the wrong” — what is “good” and “bad” — and then deciding what he will actually do. If the individual is prohibited from making this choice or is commanded to act in a certain way, his behavior no longer has its moral element in it.

In defending Mr. Dole’s proposal, Mr. Goodman argued that the reason that people are coerced by government to redistribute their wealth “is that given freedom of choice, some people will try to become ‘free riders’ on the charitable gifts of others and fail to contribute their ‘fair share.’”

But if a society is to be free, then individuals must have the discretion to “ride free” on the good works of others. To deny them the option of being a “free rider” abrogates the very foundation of a free society — the liberty of the individual to decide whether or not he wishes to voluntarily contribute to and participate in various community or social endeavors. That same liberty permits others to contribute to and assist causes they view as deserving, even when they may know that some others choose not to participate and, instead, get a free ride.

Mr. Dole, in his Philadelphia speech, said: “I learned the hard way that while self-reliance is an essential part of the American character, so is that generous spirit that reaches out to those wounded in body and soul.” But there is no “generous spirit,” nor is there any way for it to normally or healthily develop, when the individual is confined within the false generosity of compulsory redistribution.

It is often correctly pointed out that under the welfare state, people have become more callous and less concerned about their fellow men. Why should I help Aunt Minnie now that she is old? Why should I give of my time and effort to assist in some community activity? I’ve paid my taxes — let some government agency take care of these problems.

If implemented, Mr. Dole’s “charity voucher” plan would soon become another irritating government burden for a growing number of taxpayers. As the end of the tax year approached, people would have to take the time out from other things they would rather be doing to give those “voucher dollars” to one of the government-approved charities; otherwise, they might face a higher tax liability if they failed to perform their compulsory “moral duty.” The irritation would only be increased because the set of worthy causes for which the vouchers may be applied would be limited to the list of charitable organizations approved of by the state.

With every charitable cause now potentially a recipient of these “voucher dollars,” how would the government decide which were the charities or philanthropic organizations eligible for such funding? What if some organization proposed a radical idea for assisting “the poor,” such as an educational campaign to preach that “the Lord helps those who help themselves” or “a penny saved is a penny earned”? Would this be considered an illegitimate or “crackpot” organization not worthy of “voucher” support? Who and how shall the decision be made?

On May 23, 1996, The New York Times reported that “charitable donations jumped nearly 11 percent last year [1995] to $143.9 billion, the biggest increase since 1986.” The largest increases were in contributions to “research and public policy organizations, community development and advocacy organizations, and charities that collect goods for other charities,” which saw a 17 percent increase in voluntary giving. Environmental and wildlife groups experienced the second-largest increase, with a 13 percent jump in contributions.

These were the types of associations, organizations, and groups for which people most wanted to increase their support in 1995. Yet these causes, according to Mr. Dole and Mr. Goodman, would not be eligible for “charity vouchers” because they don’t fit their definitions of “poverty relief” (Mr. Dole) or “traditional welfare activities” (Mr. Goodman).

Furthermore, once added to the list of eligible charities, it is inevitable that, over time, various federal regulatory agencies would have to increase their supervision and oversight of these privileged organizations to assure that tax funds received were being used appropriately. And, as Mr. Goodman suggests, a leading federal agency for this job would be the IRS — the government’s most humane and rights — respecting branch of power! Private charity would soon find itself far less free and far less private.

Finally, what should be each taxpayer’s “fair share” in the form of “charity vouchers”? Mr. Dole proposed up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 per couple. Mr. Goodman estimated that in 1994, the federal government spent about 31 percent of all personal income taxes on means-tested welfare programs minus Medicaid; he suggested that this could be the percentage of an individual’s income tax allocated to a “charity voucher.”

“Fair share,” then, means nothing more than a number pulled out of a politician’s hat or what, at a random moment in history, the government happens to spend on redistributive programs. And that’s the problem (and it’s made even worse when a proponent of the free-market society uses it and gives it legitimacy): “fair share” is like “social justice” or “the general welfare” or “the common good.” The phrase can mean almost anything and, in fact, means nothing, other than the floating definitions and content each and every user chooses to assign to it in a particular political context.

Each individual is not only the best judge, he is the only judge of which charitable causes — if any — are worth supporting. There is no value scale other than the individual’s for deciding what “share” — if any — of the income he has earned in the marketplace should go to which charities and for what specific purposes. And there can be no morality in society other than through each individual’s free choices and actions.

Taxpayer choice can be maximized by eliminating both the welfare state and the taxes upon which it is maintained. Then, the taxpayer will have been transformed into the free man. And from the actions of free men will come the real moral results of good works.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).