Handouts

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One of the debates among liberty seekers is about the extent to which it's morally right to accept or reject government handouts. In my opinion, it's one of a rather small number of issues still open to valid debate, and for sure there are good, sincere people on both sides of it and I respect all of them. Although these remarks come down clearly on one side, that respect remains very much intact, for over some years my own mind has changed quite a lot. I've no wish to try to hurry anyone to change his without careful thought.

On the other hand, if anyone reading this is still wondering about the question, perhaps it will help him decide. Perhaps it will even stimulate other writers to enliven the debate by offering an opposing view.

I've seen nobody put the "reject them" viewpoint more eloquently than Carl Watner, and warmly recommend a read of his masterly book I Must Speak Out before coming down on either side of the debate. I can't do that viewpoint justice with words of my own, so do be sure to read it; his reasoning centers on the fact that before government can provide any benefit of any kind to any person, it must first steal at gunpoint from someone else the resources required, and so to accept the handout is to be complicit in that aggression. I cannot deny any of that; he's correct, and that's why there's an ethical debate. Even so, I now take the opposite view, and here present six reasons:

(1) To reject all government goodies is literally impossible; (2) to do so even partially is enormously costly; (3) it is wholly irrelevant to our main objective (to rid humanity of the monstrous scourge of government, which puts us in this moral dilemma in the first place); (4) it leaves money in the hands of a gang of thugs who will certainly use it to do harm; (5) it throws away a chance to recover stolen property; and (6) it allows government supporters to escape the consequences of their malfeasance.

If any reader is not perfectly clear that our prime ethical objective is to terminate government outright, as in #3, let him please go no further until that is resolved. This forum has a rich archive of material to prove conclusively that it must be so. As I see it, this is the supreme ethical purpose, towering above all others; government is so morally repugnant that none other comes close to that of doing all one can to end its loathsome existence. That doesn't say that "the end justifies the means," but it does say to give that purpose top priority.

So let's examine those six reasons.

First, it's impossible consistently to reject all government benefits. Daily life is intertwined with them in far too much intimate complexity. Yes, if offered "free money" as promoted by such as Kevin Trudeau, one might ignore what the government liars describe as "entitlements;" and yes, there is no compulsion to apply for unemployment benefit or Social Security or food stamps or even Medicare. It's possible to live without them--or more likely, to die without them. And if that happened, one would die with an easy conscience, having never gained in such ways by receiving the fruits of a threatened armed raid upon one's neighbor.

Still, it's impossible to be consistent. One can avoid watching or listening to Public Broadcasting (subsidized by taxpayers of whom some never use it), but if we receive any broadcasting, we are benefiting from government's allocation of frequencies. It wasn't ever necessary that the FCC should police them--the market could have handled it quite readily--but they do so, as a fact. Is it possible to live without radio or TV? Of course. But to be consistent, one would have to.

A parallel line of reasoning applies to the use of telephone lines and poles, erected under government license, and the Internet signals they convey. So it may be possible not to use the Internet; but you'd have to, to be consistent, and if you did that, you'd not be able to read the priceless wisdom on the screen before you.

It's not possible for everyone to grow his own food. It used to be, but now that most of the population lives in cities, it no longer is; labor is divided for much greater efficiency, so it's impossible to live without buying it at the store. But if you shop at the store, you accept several government benefits; you walk, cycle or drive along a government road, built and maintained with money stolen at gunpoint from your neighbor, and you receive the benefit of information about nutritional values printed on labels affixed to most products by government edict. You also gain from the fact that government inspectors monitor the quality of foods, so that the risk of buying poison is negligible. There's a benefit! The fact that the market would do the same thing only better and cheaper if government did not exist isn't relevant; government does do it, you and I benefit, so we are accepting a handout and it's impossible not to while continuing to live.

Before leaving the store, we naturally have to make payment, and the only way that can be done is to use government fiat money, whether in paper or plastic form. If we offered gold or silver coin, the store would almost certainly not accept it (except perhaps at its face value!) - not currently, I mean. When the US dollar follows the one in Zimbabwe, the store may accept nothing else; but in my view, that will not happen before the mid-2020s. Meanwhile, if we tender green paper printed by the government, no problem; for as it says on the face, the vendor is compelled to accept it, that's what "legal tender" means. That's a benefit! And it's impossible to buy food without it, so it's impossible to live without it.

After the trip to the store, you feel thirsty, so grab a glass of water from the faucet. Unless you live in the sticks with your own well, that's government water you're drinking--or at best, water delivered by a government-licensed monopolist. Don't drink it, you die. So once again, it's impossible to live without accepting a government benefit.

Having satisfied thirst and hunger, it's time to send Mom the birthday card you bought at the store. Oops! That means accepting the benefit of the government-licensed and -controlled postal monopoly on first-class mail. Whether it's impossible not to send Mom the card is, of course, something only the reader can judge.

Granted, some of these government goodies are small, in themselves; but the reader can easily, with thought and imagination, add scores more to the short list above. Add them up, and surely my case is made: it's not possible consistently to reject them all. And if one of them is accepted, why not also the rest?

One answer might be Okay, some it's impossible to reject, but on ethical grounds we ought to reject all that we can.

Very well, but notice: The ethical purist has now had to step down from his high ground. There is now a compromise in play, and some handouts you "can" reject I might not, and vice versa. But let's pursue it: Take the example of unemployment benefits, a current issue right now for a lot of people. Government has so distorted the economy, as several writers here have explained, that abnormal numbers of people are losing jobs. Taxes are so high that few were able to save money for rainy days, so extreme hardship follows swiftly; perhaps, death by starvation for the victim and his family. Government has broken his legs; is he now to refuse the crutch it offers? I say again: It is (often, if not always) impossible to live without accepting the handout. One can refuse them and die, or accept them and live; but it's impossible to refuse them all and live.

For some years I did try not to accept these handouts, and when last laid off, I did not apply for unemployment benefits. Since then, though, I've thought through more clearly what's at stake; and have no doubt at all that it matters far more to resolve firmly to do all one can to end the miserable, destructive existence of government than to worry endlessly about how much of its distributed loot to accept and how much to spurn.

My second reason: Refusal is enormously costly, even when it's possible to do it and continue living. Take another common example: "Social Security." This may be on the margin, between expensive and impossible. Government steals 15.3% of all that people earn, while working (half of it directly and half from the employer, who would otherwise be able to pay it to the employee in the form of a higher wage) and then spends it on pensions and other benefits in due course--notably on health care, the price of which has (following a form of Parkinson's Law) expanded to fit the amount of money made available. Directly contrary to the clear legal implication of its full name (SS "Insurance"), there is no reserve fund, out of whose earnings in investment markets those benefits are paid, so it was an absolute swindle from the get-go; but that's the way it is. Until government evaporates (which it will, quite soon) we are stuck with the SS and that 15.3% impost almost if not completely prevents the vastly more healthy practice of saving for one's own retirement or sickness--or from buying genuine insurance in the market, which would pay two or three times the benefits for the same premium.

But it's there anyway. Our only choice is to accept what's offered, knowing that it's a total fraud that steals the benefit from current workers, or not to apply. For a majority of people, I think the latter is impossible--they would, as above, starve to death. For those so talented and hard-working as to have been able to save well, it may be possible--but still, enormously costly, which is what my second reason claims.

My third is that refusal of government handouts is in any case irrelevant and ineffective to the key aim of terminating the existence of government, the source of the whole problem.

Think about it: You consider those handouts which can be refused, and refuse them; what exactly happens next? Does the grateful SS Administration thank you and hand the money back to the taxpayers from whom the money was stolen?

Not in a million years. They may raise eyebrows for a moment, perhaps remark to their colleagues "there goes another sucker" and spend the money on something else. Money being fungible, the "something else" will like as not be an extra policeman, or an extra gun in his hands, or the means to enforce a new law, or to help wage a new war. Take a look at the very helpful IRS Pie Charts (p.100) of what the Feds actually spend our money on, and take your pick. If you don't take the money, that's where it will certainly go. Or if it's a state government handout you're refusing, where will it then be spent? On fancier offices for its bureaucrats? More troopers on the road, to ruin your holiday outing with a radar trap? Maybe; more probably, it will get sunk in the sink-hole euphemized as "education," to make it even more difficult to get the next generation deprogrammed from the Cult of the Omnipotent State.

Not only is it irrelevant and ineffective in promoting the abolition of government, therefore, to leave money on its table is actually to make the problem worse; to shoot ourselves in the feet, and make our job harder yet! This is not rational, and I'd argue it is also not ethical--for the only choice is either to help end the thief's career, or to help prolong it. If we spend it, the productive sector is enhanced. If they spend it, the parasite sector is enhanced. Which sector is it more ethical to enhance? Looks like a no-brainer, so for me the ethical choice is clear: I want done with this villain!

Fourth: to accept every goodie in sight takes money out of its hands, and therefore makes government harder to operate, and therefore tends to increase the probability of its raising taxes (or printing more money, which is the same thing but less visible) and therefore tends to make the voting population less satisfied with the system. This is a very good result, and while it's not the way to bring about a free society, it can't hinder. That task can only be accomplished by universal re-education, but if the population is less satisfied with the status quo than it might otherwise be, we have a flying start in the form of more discontented, open minds.

It's worth a moment to become quite clear about this. All here would agree, I hope, that it's ethical not to support government, for example by not paying any tax that can be avoided, so as to do so to the smallest possible degree; to take all possible deductions, not to take too many pains to remember all items of income, etc. After all, that's exactly what millions of government supporters do, so we who oppose it would be ethically remiss, were we to fail to follow their fine example. Now, I always get confused about whether debits go on the left and credits on the right, or vice-versa, but I do know that to claim and accept all available handouts is identical in effect to taking advantage of all available tax loopholes. If the one is ethically good, so is the other; both serve equally well to starve a feeding bureaucrat. If conversely it is ethically bad to accept handouts, it must be ethically bad to minimize tax payments--and so I suggest my whole case is proven by this single reductio ad absurdum.

Fifth: to accept handouts is a form of theft-recovery. Government rips off close to 50% of all everyone earns, but there are these few ways available to get some of it back (we'll never recover close to the whole of it, for most of it goes to pay bureaucrats and clients--but, some of it.) What is wrong with theft recovery? Not much that I can see. True, we anticipate that in order to repay us, the thief will not empty his own pockets, sell off his alleged assets and go out of business, but will go out and rob someone else; but that decision is his, not ours, and so is the moral responsibility.

Lastly, while it's true that everything government hands out it first steals from someone else, it's also true (like it or not) that most of those theft victims voted for the system as we know it. This is what they said they wanted; so why not take them at their word and let them wallow in it? Notice, to do that would not be to aggress against them, but simply to allow them to experience more fully the system they have repeatedly endorsed. Yes, it's no doubt true that when the politician bought their votes, he didn't mention that every benefit comes with a heavy price tag, but surely they can't be so dumb as not to realize that? Can they?

Some government handouts come in the form of "services" which are, themselves, profoundly damaging--its schools being the most obvious example. Those are hardly benefits, and they should be rejected for the direct harm they cause, not for the fact that they are funded with stolen money. With those exceptions, then, that's my case for recognizing that while the system stinks, it's rational to accept every goodie that's offered, and to do so without losing a wink of sleep.

However, I re-emphasize the vital proviso necessary to keep us from just merging in to the crowd of mindless feeders at the government trough: in the very act of accepting the handout, one ought for ethical as well as practical reasons to denounce the system that is making it available; denounce it, and in particular take deliberate, systematic, sustained and rational action to terminate its life at the earliest possible date. That, and nothing less, is the main ethical choice to be made, and when that action succeeds and the flow of handouts dries up, so be it.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"