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Rising above the Surplus

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One of the biggest issues in the presidential race has been what should be done with the surplus. How much of the extra tax revenue should be used to shore up Social Security? To protect Medicare and Medicaid? To pay down the national debt How much should be returned to the taxpayer?

The debate over the surplus, however, has helped to obscure an important moral and political issue that unfortunately is not part of the presidential campaign or even the congressional races: Should the U.S. government have the power to tax people for the purpose of giving the money away?

Americans have become so accustomed to the welfare ects of their government that they now rarely consider this important question. And the matter is aggravated in an era of prosperity and budget surpluses because people, being comfortable, are less likely to consider fundamental changes in the nature of their government. But the principles of freedom require that the moral foundations of government always be in the forefront of people’s minds.

Despite the media’s attempt to portray George W. Bush and Al Gore as having diametrically opposing political views, both of them share the same vision with respect to the proper role of government in American society. Both Bush and Gore would argue, for example, that there’s nothing wrong with government’s being in the tax-and-welfare business. That’s why both of them support income taxation, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, public schooling, public housing, foreign aid, and other ects of the modern-day welfare state. The primary differences between Bush and Gore are over who should be in charge of the entire enterprise and how it should be run.

Are moral principles important with respect to the powers of government? Yes, because there are violations of morality that we should not want enshrined in governmental power. To put it another way, there are fundamental rights that should be immune from the powers of government.

Most of us, for example, would consider it wrong for government to have the power to control what people read, even if many people are reading the “wrong” material and even if government control could remedy that.

Once we acknowledge, however, that there should be limits on the power of government, the obvious question arises: What are the proper limits of government power for a free society? One specific issue that inevitably would arise in the context of such a debate would be: Is it moral for government to have the power to tax A for the purpose of giving the money to B?

All of us would acknowledge that it is morally wrong, on a private basis, to take what doesn’t belong to us, regardless of good intentions. For example, let’s assume a thief’s defense is that the money he stole was used to pay for his mother’s health care, his brother’s education, and his grandparents’ rent.

Most of us would agree that while these things might mitigate punishment, they would not justify the act itself. We would agree that the thief’s actions, even if they helped other people, are wrong from a moral standpoint simply because it’s wrong to steal.

The question then arises: Can people convert what it is admittedly an immoral act into a moral act by making it legal, that is, by giving the government the power to engage in it? In the early history of our country, Americans answered that question in the negative. That’s why for more than 100 years, Americans lived without such things as income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, and public schooling. If it’s wrong for A to take what belongs to B without his consent in order to give the loot to C, our ancestors reasoned, then it’s equally wrong, from a moral standpoint, to use the government to accomplish the same thing.

Of course, that moral and philosophical perspective toward governmental power was ultimately abandoned by 20th-century Americans (without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment). Thus, a primary role of our federal government today is to tax so that the largess can be delivered to people who have been selected by our government officials to receive it.

It is this 20th-century vision of governmental power that causes Bush and Gore to fight over what to do with the surplus. The American people would be better served with a national debate on the proper role of government in a free society and over which vision of political morality should guide us into the third century of our nation’s existence.

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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.