The other morning, as I was reading articles in my computer room, I heard a woman scream. Immediately, my attention was wrested away from my writing, I sat up straight, and waited in silence, listening for any clues that someone was in danger. My heart began to race.
I decided within a split second that since it was still too early for sunlight, the possibility of a woman being raped or murdered in this safe Seattle suburb, although unlikely, was entirely possible, and so I readied myself for action. Only a few months ago, a woman in my town had been raped by an illegal alien, and I’d sworn that it wouldn’t happen again. Not on my watch, anyway. So when I heard the second scream, I found myself running for the door, grabbing the weapon closest to me–my handy hatchet–and charging into the darkness, half excited to rescue a woman from danger, the other half terrified of close combat and potential jail time.
As I ran out the door, I bolted toward the damsel in distress, or where I thought she was, anyway. But I couldn’t find her, so I ran further. As I approached the arterial street in my pajamas, weapon readied for action, I heard voices of laughter… from two teenage girls and a male bystander, waiting for the bus. As it became apparent to me that nobody was in danger, and that these girls had just been making blood-curdling screams–for some awful reason–at 6 in the morning, I stopped and stood still, analyzing the situation. Then, something else became apparent to me: that I was standing in the street in my pajamas and messy hair, menacingly wielding a hatchet, looking directly at teenage girls at a bus stop. When one of the girls noticed me, she turned to her friend, and in an insulting tone asked, “who’s that?” As if the would-be hero was actually kind of a creepy, axe-wielding weirdo. Fate has a funny way of doing this to me.
In a strange way, state philanthropy also has a tendency to result poorly, though it springs from the same instinctual well as heroism. When we propose to give seniors security in their dependency, or when we try to fight a malicious disease, or when we try to protect unfortunate families from eviction, or defend a respectable man from what we perceive to be racist behavior against him, our deeply-felt inclinations to be heroic are oftentimes noble. Sometimes, the hero gets the glory, a person is rescued from distress, and the day ends well. Other times, we are caught in the rain holding a hatchet and looking like a psycho (metaphorically, of course). But aside from glory and embarrassment, sometimes state benevolence ends in harm and disaster. And oftentimes, the difference between successful state philanthropy and communistic violations of unalienable rights isn’t in effort or emotion, but rather approach.
In order to properly assess the moral boundaries of state welfare, we must first acquaint ourselves with its costs. It must be argued, first and foremost, that any entrance into a social contract involves the sacrifice of certain rights to promote others. For instance, we are all aware that a state without a military and police force will not be a state for long, so we accept taxation to support both. But when we give the state the power of taxation–the very right to threaten violence toward those who will not pay–we have given away some of our property rights for a more valuable security. Charity operates much in the same way: we determine that the welfare of the receiver is more valuable than the property of the average citizen, and so property is confiscated to support those whom we we determine to be eligible.
But, when our hearts lead us toward this state philanthropy, are they necessarily wrong? My answer is that due to human emotion, in our empathetic perception of suffering, sometimes we wish to extend the human responsibility of charity to our government, when we should usually be doing something ourselves (it is not charity, after all, when it involves forcefully taking the resources of others). But should we transfer our personal responsibility to the state, we will eventually encounter two serious problems.
First, when we either ignore or refuse to recognize the only safe boundaries within which government may take from some to give to others, we grant an unspecified power to bodies which are personally unacquainted with those they attempt to help. This personal dislocation between giver and taker must necessarily result in both gross inefficiency and a frequent misplacement of the public’s money.
But far more dangerous than forfeited efficiency, our reliance upon state philanthropy requires an ever-increasing usurpation of rights to combat an endless supply of poverties and sufferings. Most are aware that since the introduction of the Great Society, the scope of the benevolent state has only expanded, as people began asking why the government cannot also address their personal sufferings. To make the process of expansion easier, as humans believe their government philanthropy is an extension of personal charity, leftists may easily portray state philanthropy’s opponents as cold-hearted, selfish monsters. And thus the state grows.
But we should all take note that in this purposed extension of human emotion to the state, this replacement of individual instinct with state benevolence, we attempt to transfer noble and heroic human qualities to a body which can reliably be said to possess less of them. For instance, consider these two qualities of legislative government. First, that our congress is personally unacquainted with the overwhelming majority of their victims, both direct and indirect. Second, that congress is capable of diffusing responsibility for political harm amongst a mass of congressmen.
Alexander Hamilton once wrote of the collective nature of politicians in Federalist Paper #15, that “Regard to reputation has a less active influence, when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one. A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity.”
Further condemning a tendency toward corporate irresponsibility, James Madison expressed an equal distrust of the collective human. He wrote in Federalist Paper #62, “One nation is to another what one individual is to another; with this melancholy distinction perhaps, that the former, with fewer of the benevolent emotions than the latter, are under fewer restraints also from taking undue advantage from the indiscretions of each other.” Ironically, through the retardation of bedrock social behaviors, socialism–the “social” government–is antisocial, and could perhaps by certain definitional standards even be labeled sociopathic. It would seem most imprudent, in this light, to allow the political viability of candidates to rest upon a state benevolence most likely to erode our liberties, and furthermore to leave that encroaching benevolence in the hands of those least likely to accept responsibility for that erosion.
But the moral answer to massive redistribution cannot be a total abandonment of safety nets. There is a time and place to help someone in need with the power of the state. Rather, we should be concerned with objectively determining state philanthropy’s boundaries, the point at which we draw the line and tell our elected representatives that in the name of liberty, we cannot allow them to proceed further. And since most Americans are not entirely opposed to the concept of an economic safety net, and thus we for the time being will have to accept one’s existence, the reformation of the American Dream requires that we draw the line clearly, and that it be drawn sooner than later.
My answer is simple: as a Christian, I know the expressly-stated, unalienable rights within which a safety net may be instituted, the righteous alternative to both a selfish nothing and a totalitarian anything. My question for you is, where do you draw the line?