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The Virtue of Freedom

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Christmas is the perfect time of year to reflect on such things as freedom and virtue. People give presents to their friends and loved ones, donate food and clothing to the poor, and make contributions to their churches and other worthy causes. And they do it all voluntarily. No one forces them to do so.

Do you ever wonder how all this takes place in the absence of coercion? Imagine that 60 years ago in the midst of the Great Depression, in order to nurture family values, Congress had enacted a law requiring everyone to purchase a Christmas gift for other members of his immediate family. Suppose today, someone suggests that the law be repealed. It is not difficult to predict what the response would be:

“Why, we can’t repeal the Christmas gift law. Do you hate Christ or what? If we got rid of the law, some parents would stop buying Christmas gifts for their children. Think how many children would fall through the cracks. We can’t just trust people to do the right thing. Isn’t it right and moral that people give gifts at Christmas time? Or maybe you think that Santa Claus is going to fill the void. And if we are going to get rid of the program, then it ought to be phased out instead of abruptly ended.”

Ridiculous? Yet, isn’t that the case with Social Security, welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, and all of the other socialistic programs that make up America’s welfare-state system?

Take the crown jewel of them all – Social Security. Here, the coercive apparatus of government is used to take money from the young and productive in order to provide retirement pay to the elderly. Suggesting that Social Security be repealed, not reformed, throws advocates of the program into a fit. “How could people survive without Social Security?” they cry.

This mindset of dependency is one of the terribly destructive consequences of welfare-state programs. Social Security itself has become a political narcotic that has destroyed people’s sense of self-reliance — the can-do attitude that once characterized the American people. So many people honestly believe that people would die in the streets if the program were repealed. People would no longer save for their old age. Children would no longer honor their mothers and fathers. Charities would disappear. Churches would go broke.

But there’s a worse consequence of the welfare-state mentality. It has corrupted people’s sense of virtue, compassion, and caring.

How in the world can government achieve or even nurture a compassionate society? Let’s analyze the process step by step. Let’s assume that a very poor person approaches a very rich person and asks for a Christmas gift of $1,000. Even though the rich person knows that the poor person truly is in need, the rich person decides not to give him any money. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that the rich person is an uncaring, selfish, uncompassionate Scrooge.

The following November there is an election. People elect a majority of saints to the U.S. Congress. The congressional saints enact a welfare law to assist the poor. Rich people are ordered to deliver to the government $1,000 each, and the law is enforced by the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. marshals.

Threatened with fine and imprisonment, the rich Scrooge who had turned his back on the poor man sends his $1,000 to the IRS, which in turn delivers the money to the U.S. Treasury, which in turn gives the money to the Department of Poor People, which in turn sends a check for $500 to the poor man. (The balance of the money, of course, is paid in government salaries and administrative costs. Hey, government officials have to live too!)

Has the rich man now been converted into a caring, compassionate, virtuous person? It’s hard to see how he has. His heart hasn’t changed. The only reason he sent the money to the government was that the government was threatening him with fines and imprisonment if he didn’t do it.

Of course, we often hear statists arguing that the welfare state, including programs like Social Security, show that we are a caring and compassionate people. But who exactly is the “we” they are talking about? Voters? What about people who don’t vote? Do they get to claim part of the compassion mantle? What about those who voted against the congressional saints who won?

The truth is that no one is compassionate or caring simply because he lives in a welfare state. Caring and compassion can come only from the willing heart of an individual, not through participating in a society that uses government force to take money from one person in order to give it to another person.

The matter is much graver, however, than a simple corruption of the significance and meaning of virtue. The question that every Christian must ask is: By supporting the welfare state, is the Christian violating the tenets of Christianity? If so, doesn’t his commitment to Christianity require him to immediately stop approving of the programs?

Recall when the young rich man approached Jesus, told him that he had followed all the commandments, and asked Jesus what else he could do. Jesus replied by telling the young man to sell everything he had and to give the proceeds to the poor. Unable to relinquish his material wealth, the young man walked away.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he responded by telling us to love God and our neighbor. Yet, when the young rich man turned his back on his neighbor, what was Jesus’ reaction? Did he summon the Roman centurions and tell them to seize the man’s wealth and give it to the poor? Did he round up the apostles in order to gang up on the young man force him into giving his wealth to the poor?

On the contrary, Jesus simply permitted the young man to make his choice and then live with it. Isn’t this what free will is all about? Each person is free to love God … or not. He is free to love his neighbor … or not. If Caesar is permitted to interfere with the process by coercing people, through fines and imprisonment, into loving God or others, then what does that do to God’s gift of free will?

Moreover, what about God’s commandment against stealing? Simply because an act is legal it doesn’t necessarily mean that the act doesn’t contradict God’s laws. For example, if Congress were to pass a law making it a death-penalty offense to be a Jew and then the executive branch began executing violators of the law, the action would be legal but certainly not moral.

Why doesn’t the same principle apply to stealing? If it’s wrong in the eyes of God for one person to rob another at gunpoint, why isn’t it equally wrong in the eyes of God for me to use the force of the state to accomplish the same result? Can an act that is admittedly immoral be converted into a moral act simply through majority vote?

Thus, everyone who supports such socialistic programs as Social Security must ultimately grapple with the possibility that he is doing much more than simply participating in a political process and supporting a particular political philosophy. He must confront the possibility that he is doing something significantly graver than simply corrupting the meaning of virtue and compassion. He must accept the possibility that by supporting any aspect of the socialistic welfare state, he is denigrating God’s great gift of free will as well as affirmatively supporting a violation of God’s sacred commandment “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” And the discomfort associated with such a possibility might be magnified by the question that might begin to haunt the person’s conscience: “Shall I continue to support a system that violates the laws of my God or should I immediately start calling for repeal?”

Statists often suggest that if welfare-state programs (and the income tax) were repealed, private charity would dry up. Everyone, including all those who support things like Social Security, would overnight become evil, selfish, and uncaring people. Of course, that might be true. (Of course, if it is true, it’s unlikely that they would elect saints to Congress to tax them to provide Social Security.) But again, isn’t that what free will is all about? If a person is not free to say “No,” then how can he truly be considered free?

There is no doubt that freedom is risky. Theoretically, people could use their freedom to reject God and reject their neighbor. But isn’t freedom actually the best way to achieve such values as compassion and caring. How? Freedom is the process by which people have to engage in choosing. And isn’t that what strengthens what we call conscience? Should I help the poor or not? Should I worship God or not? Should I donate to that cause or not? It is in this process of choosing that virtue rises in a society.

But if a society tries a shortcut to virtue by turning to coercion, the result is exactly the opposite. Why should I help the poor if I pay my taxes every year? Isn’t that the job of the government? Why should I help my parents? Don’t they already receive Social Security? Virtue is stultified when conscience freezes. And conscience freezes when choices are discouraged.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the joy of the season by giving gifts to others, let us reflect upon the importance of freedom and virtue. Let’s ask ourselves which is the virtuous process: taxation and welfare or voluntarily giving?

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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.