Perspectives: Wrong doesn’t become right when government does it

OPINION – It’s interesting that virtually every conflict in our society can be distilled down to a moral principle. In this sense, the word “moral” is not synonymous with religion but encompasses a definition of right and wrong that is recognizable and applicable to believers and unbelievers alike.

Unfortunately, most of the debate over the hot-button issues of our day is centered on the popularity of an issue rather than whether it violates moral principles.

A good way to test the soundness of any government policy is to apply it at the individual level and see if it would still be acceptable. If a particular act would be considered morally reprehensible for you or me to undertake as an individual, it is still wrong when government does it.

Take the example of so-called health care reform. Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation offers this example to demonstrate the principle at stake:

“If someone accosts you, takes you to an ATM, and forces you to withdraw $1,000 from your bank account and then give it to him, most everyone would agree that that is morally wrong. What if the thief uses the money to pay for a medical operation for his ailing mother in order to save her life? What if he uses it to fund a poor person’s education? What if he gives it to his 90-year-old parents who are broke? It wouldn’t matter.”

Hornberger’s point is that any reasonable person would likely conclude that no matter the need or justification offered by the thief, he still had no right to forcibly take money that belongs to someone else for his own use. Most of us instinctively recognize that stealing is wrong. But when government is the entity taking the money by force and using it for its own purposes too many people are unable to recognize that the same principle is at stake.

In his brilliant essay “The Law” nineteenth century economist Frederic Bastiat wrote, “Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been forced to send it in.”

The American public has been progressively indoctrinated into believing that it is government’s job to provide us with employment, education, sustenance, housing, and retirement. Each of these government entitlement programs is sold to the public under the guise of helping the needy. But they are what Bastiat termed “legal plunder”.

Bastiat asks, “But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

The intentions may be good, but when government is still taking from some individuals what rightfully belongs to them and giving it to others to whom it does not belong, it is still theft. The law, which exists for the purpose of protecting our rights, is effectively converted into an instrument of plunder.

The longer such abuses of government power are allowed to continue, the more they tend to spread and multiply. Bastiat warned, “Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law – which may be an isolated case – is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.”

This pattern of legal plunder can be clearly recognized over several generations of American history starting with FDR’s New Deal. It metastasized again during Johnson’s Great Society programs and has continued unabated into our own day. In that time, our society has become extremely comfortable with the practice of using government to steal from some and give to others. Popularity appears to have trumped moral principle.

One of the biggest challenges for champions of the proper role of government is overcoming the public’s acceptance of state-sponsored theft.

Recognition of this principle in no way excuses us from our individual moral responsibility to care for the truly needy among us. But that is something best accomplished by persuasion, on a voluntary basis, rather than under the threat of force.

Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

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  • Ron January 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Absolute freedom is nothing more than freedom for the strong (physically, financially, emotionally) to “plunder” the weak. Absolute freedom is the law of the jungle. Civilized society begins when people agree to give up a measure of freedom in order to protect the well-being of all insofar as possible. The debate–as is the case with most debatable issues–must focus on where “the line” should be drawn, not on absolutes.

  • Eric January 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    Excellent. Well said.

  • Joe N. January 7, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    People can not agree to give to the collective well being if the government is forcing them to do so. Ron, where do you draw the line? It seems you are suggesting a a free republic be mingled with socialism. As Bastiat so masterfully argues, welfare is never a task of the government but rather should be left to philanthropy, that is the only scenario where people are free and choose to enhance the well being of others. Perhaps that is why nearly every forefather repeatedly admonished that the only foundation of freedom is religion, morality, and virtue. Anyone wanting to comment on this article should probably first read Bastiat’s The Law.

    • Damie January 8, 2013 at 9:41 am

      One reason to provide healthcare for the poor is that nests of plague, cholera, TB and other diseases can gain a foothold and then spread to you and your family. Part of not having constant epidemics that kill half your children as they did in the good old days when it was every man for himself is making sure the entire population is free from these sorts of diseases

  • Ron January 8, 2013 at 6:47 am

    Abstract, high-sounding intellectual discussions of law, philanthropy, justice, morality, etc.,are all fine in the classroom or the drawing rooms of the privileged. But try reading accounts of life in Victorian England, where “philanthropy” meant workhouses, child labor, and incredible suffering for masses of people with promises of pie in the sky for those who stay humble and don’t make waves.

    • Damie January 8, 2013 at 9:47 am

      They’re probably also unaware that it was immigrant survivors of the potato famine which killed millions were among those who pushed for our system of welfare to make sure people didn’t die en masse when they don’t have to. The English didn’t want to hurt grain prices by shipping wheat to Ireland during that time and so valued the market over millions of lives.

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