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The Morality of the Welfare State

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As a compassionate conservative, President Bush wants to give federal aid to faith-based organizations. His plan has drawn attacks from religious leaders on the right and civil libertarians on the left.

Religious leaders object to Bush’s plan on the ground that it will lead to governmental interference with religious organizations. The point they make was summarized by the Supreme Court in 1942 in the case of Wickard vs. Filburn: “It is hardly lack of due process for the government to regulate that which it subsidizes.”

Those on the left end of the political spectrum are complaining that federal aid to religious groups would breach the wall of separation between church and state that is guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, Bush and his critics on both the right and the left are missing a much more fundamental question: Why should government even have the power to take money from one person in order to give it to another?

George Washington is reputed to have said, “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force.” By its very nature, government consists of laws and regulations that either mandate conduct or prohibit it. The rules are not advisory. They are compulsory, and they are enforced by the state’s monopoly on the use of force in society.

If a citizen intentionally breaks a law or regulation, he must submit to the state’s judgment or pay the consequences for resistance, because behind the state’s judgment are armed law-enforcement officers, fines, and penitentiaries.

We regularly witness the state’s use of force with respect to the enforcement of laws against violent crimes, such as murder, rape, and theft, and most of us favor the state’s use of force in those cases. But the state also initiates force when people violate laws and regulations that govern peaceful behavior.

How does all this pertain to President Bush’s plan to give federal aid to religious organizations? If the nature of government is organized force, then the collection and distribution of monies that are ultimately paid to religious organizations are themselves based on force. Such being the case, how can force be reconciled with principles of morality and compassion?

Consider for example the U.S. federal income tax, which came into existence in 1916. Despite periodic IRS claims to the contrary, the payment of income taxes is not voluntary. That is, the government does not give people a choice of paying their income taxes or not. Every citizen is required by law to file an annual report of his income and render payment for the taxes due.

What happens if a citizen refuses? Once the IRS targets him, the process of collection will begin with polite requests, but if the resistance continues, the state will ultimately resort to force. For example, the IRS will file a lien on the person’s property and then ask a court to foreclose the lien. Once the foreclosure sale is completed, the court will issue an order commanding the tax resister to surrender possession of the property to the new owner. The order will be enforced by armed law-enforcement officers.

In fact, this is exactly what happened to a church in Indiana. Church officials stopped withholding federal income taxes and Social Security taxes from employees’ salaries in 1984. The IRS filed a lien for $3.6 million against the church property and secured a judicial foreclosure of it. Recently, at the point of armed force, church officials were compelled to surrender possession of the property.

I wonder whether any of the money that the IRS collected in the foreclosure sale of that church will be going to faith-based organizations.

So, who’s the moral and compassionate person in all this? The taxpayer? The IRS agent? President Bush? Congress? The welfare official?

The answer is: None of the above. Because in the arena of peaceful behavior, morality and compassion mean nothing when they are the product of force. They are meaningful only in the context of voluntary, willing choices of individuals.

Equally important, it’s only in a climate of individual freedom, not coercion, in the area of peaceful choices, that morality and compassion tend to rise in a society. When government forces people to help their neighbors, conscience atrophies. When people are free to choose whether to help their neighbors or not, conscience is strengthened.

Thus, if people care about morality and compassion, they should not only be opposing Bush’s plan to distribute government aid to faith-based organizations. They should also be questioning government aid to anyone.

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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.