Given my unyielding stance against the welfare state, I am frequently the recipient of emails asserting that I am cruel, greedy, harsh, heartless, rotten, and selfish. The character of the emails is ever the same, and they tend to consist of two parts, the first being a lengthy critique of my alleged lacking of human compassion, the second being a persuasive attempt to corner me with foolish propositions that have no basis in fact, or ignore the Laws of Nature. The question is always some form of: “All right, you cruel heartless so-and-so, what would you have us do about the poor? Step over their corpses in the gutter? You who claim to hate so-called death-panels want all of government to be one giant death panel and discontinue assistance to the poor, like unplugging a person from life-support. You’re a complete hypocrite!” With some form of that shrill rebuke, they go on their indignant way, never to be read again. I often take the time to answer these emails, not because I expect such stunted minds to consider what I’m saying, because they generally will not even if they are able, but because in the name of all that is right, they ought to be told the truth. I had thought that if I were to address it here publicly, there would be some chance to clear things up, so let me begin by asserting to those who surround it with insults, the problem is that you are asking the wrong question. The first matter to be addressed is not what we should do about the poor, but instead whether we should do anything about them at all.
Many people recoil at the suggestion implied by my question, and yet it is a question we must ask in earnest. The great object of all the indignant sneering at the question is to obfuscate its answer. Before we can consider what is to be done, we must examine if anything should be done at all, and if so, by whom and under what circumstances. The great fraud of the safety net is and has been to impose on the wider society the responsibility for bearing the burdens of all the misfortunes and bad choices of their neighbors. Let me state bluntly that if you wish to devote some portion of your earnings and wealth to the care of the poor, I believe you should be free to do so with your money as your conscience dictates. There should never be a time in which we prohibit the gifting of goods and money to people in poverty, or for any other cause that the owner of said wealth should decide proper. Here, however, is the ugly trick of their question: I don’t ask what we shall do, but instead say “you may do whatever you like with your resources.”
At the root of their question is an assumption about who must act, and who needn’t. They use “we” to mean “everybody but me,” in most cases, because they don’t actually intend on participating in the gifting. It’s generally the assumption of those who make such a claim that only people of means should be compelled to contribute, but those of modest means ought not. The part they leave unstated in their plaintive demands for our collective actions is the notion that only some people, however distinguished by their wealth, ought to bear the burdens of the problems of every other living soul. Whether it’s health-care or clothing; food or shelter; Internet service or auto insurance, they can build a case to dip into the pockets of others on the basis of some “basic need” they have assumed we all share, and in payment for which we all ought to share. By their grim formula, your exertions on behalf of your fellow man, managed of course by these “compassionate” souls, would never end because in all the world, there will always be somebody slightly more needy than you.
At every step along the way, the entire argument is constructed so as to hide from your view one basic concept that they abhor most of all: Free will. They assume the right to deprive you in all cases whatever of your volitional disposal of your assets according to your plans, goals, aspirations, and conscience. It is ever their assumption that you will pursue your own ends first, and only share what you consider on your own to be your excess wealth, and they believe they have the right to tell you the line of demarcation between necessity and excess. This is born of their pathological disrespect for the most basic concept of civilization: Property.
Without the concept of property, even your lunch is not your own. Your person is not secure, because you wouldn’t own even your life. They who hypocritically complain about “warrantless searches” have no problem with the IRS having unfettered access to the accounts and affairs of those who they decide “have enough,” and even for those who may not, they don’t mind, since they assume some would be able to hide how much they really have otherwise. No, we mustn’t have any wealth sneaking away.
What none of these will admit is that the naked motive explicit in their demands is to be sure they are always cared for in every conceivable way, without respect to their ability or willingness to pay. Sure, they bleat on about the elderly, lamenting the problems of poverty, but none are more greedy than they who want to have a “safety net” in which to land on the day they decide they no longer wish to have responsibility for their own lives, whether that date arrives in two decades or two days.
The answer is what it had always been before the eruption of the welfare state in the progressive era of the early Twentieth Century. We cared for our poor, but we generally made them participate in their own care, and we did it to scale of our own consciences and to the extent our own senses of discomfort permitted. Under this arrangement, we had many fewer in desperate poverty, because in the main, those in poverty saw the utility in improving their own lot by industrious efforts. Even when being cared-for by a church or a community group, they were active participants in the [re]construction of their own lives.
This approach worked, and the country grew, and yes there were hard times, just as there are hard times now, but the difference is that among the broadest population, there was every incentive to move again forward and upward. In our current malaise, too many of our citizens have no vested interest in improving their own lots, since they now subsist in part or in whole on the efforts of others. Why get out and help to push the wagon, when it is so much more comfortable lying in it? Sure, one can’t afford the finest things the world may offer, but after all, free is free, right?
The most important reason that the left hates the notion of private, volitional charity and prefers the all-powerful, coercive, compulsory welfare-state is that they consider it “more fair,” because of its general uniformity. Our welfare state doesn’t ask the applicant for Aid to Families with Dependent Children how they came to be in their plight. “Fill out the form. Sign here. Next!” In this way, no judgment is ever made about the manner in which a person came to be in their “disadvantaged” state. We mustn’t attach any stigma, after all, because we don’t want any to feel badly about themselves, you know.
In contrast, private charities can and do, for reasons of moral import, and also simply in order to actually help people recover from their state of poverty by constructive means. A private charity might require the people they help to submit to drug counseling, or similar, but the welfare state does not. It is very much a “come one, come all” affair, and it pays the same whether an applicant is truly the victim of a string of tragic misfortunes, or the victim of their own self-destructive decisions. The welfare state doesn’t care whether you arrive at its door because through no fault of your own, your world collapsed around you, or instead because of your own mindless sloth.
This is why the question is always shifted to the collectivized context of what “we” had ought to do about the poor. Once it’s “we,” who are you as an individual to pass judgment? Once it is compulsory, there is no question of your volition, and any lingering matter of your moral objections are erased and nullified out of all existence. In addition to collectivizing the effort, the expenditures, and the responsibility, it is critical to remember that they always collectivize the poor too, as if every person in poverty is interchangeable with any other, all having arrived in their state by morally equal means. These are the shoddy lies inherent in their question, constructed to hide from your mind the real questions you ought to ask before you’re goaded into submission. Their efforts at collectivization are the product of a single motive: They seek absolution for the day when they will demand your help, and they have every reason to anticipate that they will. Whenever I am confronted by those who demand to know “what we should do about the poor” in accusatory tones, my answer is always the same: “I will do what I judge proper, and you may do the same.”