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Morals and the Welfare State, Part 1

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TO MANY PERSONS, the welfare state has become a symbol of morality and righteousness. This makes those who favor the welfare state appear to be the true architects of a better world; those who oppose it, immoral rascals who might be expected to rob banks, or to do most anything in defiance of ethical conduct. But is this so? Is the banner of morality, when applied to the concept of the welfare state, one that is true or false?

Now what is the test of morality or immorality to be applied to the welfare state idea? I should like to pose five fundamental ethical concepts, as postulates, by which to test it. They are the ethical precepts found in the true Christian religion — true to its original foundations; and they are likewise found in other religious faiths, wherever and under whatever name these other religious concepts assist persons to perceive and practice the moral truths of human conduct.

Moral Postulate No. 1

Economics and Morals are both parts of one inseparable body of truth.

They must, therefore, be in harmony with one another. What is right morally must also be right economically, and vice versa. Since morals are a guide to betterment and to self-protection, economic policies that violate moral truth, will, with certainty, cause degeneration and self-destruction.

This postulate may seem simple and self-evident. Yet many economists and others of my acquaintance, including one who was a most capable and admired teacher, presume to draw some kind of an impassable line of distinction between morals and economics. Such persons fail to test their economic concepts against their moral precepts. Some even scorn the moral base for testing economic concepts, as though it would somehow pollute their economic purity.

An unusually capable minister recently said that only a short time before, for the first time, he had come to realize the close connection and inter-harmony that exist between morals and economics. He had always tried to reserve one compartment for his religious thought and another separate one for his economic thought. “Fortunately,” he said, in essence, “my economic thinking happened to be in harmony with my religious beliefs; but it frightens me now to realize the risk I was taking in ignoring the harmony that must exist between the two.”

This viewpoint — that there is no necessary connection between morals and economics — is all too prevalent. It explains, I believe, why immoral economic acts are tolerated, if not actively promoted, by persons of high repute who otherwise may be considered to be persons of high moral standards.

Moral Postulate No. 2

There is a force in the universe which no mortal can alter.

Neither you nor I nor any earthly potentate with all his laws and edicts can alter this rule of the universe, no matter how great one’s popularity in his position of power. Some call this force God. Others call it natural law. Still others call it the Supernatural. But no matter how one may wish to name it, there is a force which rules without surrender to any mortal man or group of men — a force that is oblivious to anyone who presumes to elevate himself and his wishes above its rule.

This concept is the basis for all relationships of cause and consequence — all science — whether it be something already discovered or something yet to be discovered. Its scope includes phenomena such as those of physics and chemistry; it also includes those of human conduct. The so-called law of gravity is one expression of natural law. Scientific discovery means the unveiling to human perception of something that has always existed. If it had not existed prior to the discovery — even though we were ignorant of it — it could not have been there to be discovered. That is the meaning of the concept of natural law.

This view — there exists a natural law which rules over the affairs of human conduct — will be challenged by some who point out that man possesses the capacity for choice; that man’s activity reflects a quality lacking in the chemistry of a stone and in the physical principle of the lever. But this trait of man — this capacity for choice — does not release him from the rule of cause and effect, which he can neither veto nor alter. What the capacity for choice means, instead, is that he is thereby enabled, by his own choice, to act either wisely or unwisely — that is, in either accord or discord with the truths of natural law. But once he has made his choice, the inviolate rule of cause and consequence takes over with an iron hand of justice, and renders unto the doer either a prize or a penalty, as the consequence of his choice.

It is important, at this point, to note that morality presumes the existence of choice. One cannot be truly moral except as there exists the option of being immoral, and except as he selects the moral rather than the immoral option. In the admirable words of Thomas Davidson: “That which is not free is not responsible, and that which is not responsible is not moral.” This means that free choice is a prerequisite of morality.

If I surrender my freedom of choice to a ruler — by vote or otherwise — I am still subject to the superior rule of natural law or moral law. Although I am subservient to the ruler who orders me to violate Truth, I must still pay the penalty for the evil or foolish acts in which I engage at his command.

Under this postulate — that there is a force in the universe which no mortal can alter — ignorance of moral law is no excuse to those who violate it, because moral law rules over the consequences of ignorance the same as over the consequences of wisdom. This is true whether the ignorance is accompanied by good intentions or not; whether it is carried out under the name of some religion or the welfare state or what not.

What, then, is the content of a basic moral code? What are the rules which, if followed, will better the condition of men?

Moral Postulate No. 3

The Golden Rule and the Decalogue, and their near equivalents in other great religions, provide the basic moral codes for man’s conduct.

The Golden Rule and the Decalogue are basic moral guides having priority over all other considerations. It is these which have guided the conduct of man in all progressive civilizations. With their violation has come the downfall of individuals, and therefore of civilizations.

Some may prefer as a moral code something like: “Do as God would have us do,” or “Do as Jesus would have done.” But such as these, alone, are not adequate guides to conduct unless they are explained further, or unless they serve as symbolic of a deeper specific meaning. What would God have us do? What would Jesus have done? Only by adding some guides such as the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments can we know the answers to these questions.

The Golden Rule — the rule of refraining from imposing on others what I would not have them impose on me — means that moral conduct for one is moral conduct for another; that there is not one set of moral guides for Jones and another for Smith; that the concept of equality under moral law is a part of morality itself. This alone is held by many to be an adequate moral code. But in spite of its importance as part of the moral code of conduct in this respect, the Golden Rule is not, it seems to me, sufficient unto itself. It is no more sufficient than the mere admonition, “Do good,” which leaves undefined what is good and what is evil. The murderer, who at the time of the crime felt justified in committing it, can quote the Golden Rule in self-defense: “If I had done what that so-and-so did, and had acted as he acted, I would consider it fair and proper for someone to murder me.” And likewise the thief may argue that if he were like the one he has robbed, or if he were a bank harboring all those “ill-gotten gains,” he would consider himself the proper object of robbery. Some claim that justification for the Welfare State, too, is to be found in the Golden Rule. So, in addition to the Golden Rule, further rules are needed as guides for moral conduct.

The Decalogue embodies the needed guides on which the Golden Rule can function. But within the Ten Commandments, the two with which we shall be especially concerned herein are: (1) Thou shalt not steal. (2) Thou shalt not covet.

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F.A. “Baldy” Harper was the founder of the Institute for Humane Studies. This article originally appeared in volume 1 of Essays on Liberty, published in 1952 by The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

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    F.A. Harper (1905-1973) was the founder of The Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.