Immorality and the Redistributive State

Daniel J. Mitchell
Posted: Jul 10, 2014 12:01 AM
Immorality and the Redistributive State

Back in 2012, I shared a sadly amusing image about how the modern political process has degenerated into two wolves and a sheep voting what to have for lunch.

I was making an argument in that column against majoritarianism (and that is a critical issue, as explained in this video), but there’s also a very mportant moral component to this debate.

Walter Williams addresses this issue in his latest column. He starts by asking a hypothetical question.

Suppose I saw a homeless, hungry elderly woman huddled on a heating grate in the dead of winter. To help the woman, I ask somebody for a $200 donation to help her out. If the person refuses, I then use intimidation, threats and coercion to take the person’s money. I then purchase food and shelter for the needy woman. My question to you: Have I committed a crime? I hope that most people would answer yes. It’s theft to take the property of one person to give to another.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how Person A wants to spend money, it’s wrong for Person A to steal from Person B.

Walter than asks some critical follow-up questions, all of which are designed to make readers realize that theft doesn’t magically become acceptable simply because several people want to take Person B’s money.

Would it be theft if I managed to get three people to agree that I should take the person’s money to help the woman? What if I got 100, 1 million or 300 million people to agree to take the person’s $200? Would it be theft then? What if instead of personally taking the person’s $200, I got together with other Americans and asked Congress to use Internal Revenue Service agents to take the person’s $200? The bottom-line question is: Does an act that’s clearly immoral when done privately become moral when it is done collectively and under the color of law? Put another way, does legality establish morality?

Amen. Walter is exactly right.

And this is a point I need to internalize.

I’m often writing about the economic evidence for smaller government, but I suspect advocates of economic liberty and smaller government won’t win the debate unless we augment our arguments by also making the moral case against government-sanctioned theft.

And perhaps one way of getting this point across is to educate people about the fact that we used to have a very small federal government with little or no redistribution. Walter elaborates.

For most of our history, Congress did a far better job of limiting its activities to what was both moral and constitutional. As a result, federal spending was only 3 to 5 percent of the gross domestic product from our founding until the 1920s… James Madison, the acknowledged father of our Constitution, said, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees, Madison stood on the floor of the House of Representatives to object, saying, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Here’s the bottom line according to Professor Williams.

We’ve become an immoral people demanding that Congress forcibly use one American to serve the purposes of another. Deficits and runaway national debt are merely symptoms of that larger problem.

Though I would slightly disagree with the way Walter phrased it.

I would argue that a bloated government is the symptom of growing immorality. Deficits and debt are then symptoms of that problem.

P.S. I want to quickly address another issue.

When I quote Art Laffer, I’m almost always going to be in agreement with what he says.

But, as I wrote last year, we’re in disagreement on the issue of whether states should be allowed to tax sales that take place outside their borders.

And now Art has a short video that rubbed me the wrong way.

He endorses legislation that would create a sales tax cartel and says – right at the start of this video – that this is because “states should have the right to be able to tax whatever they want to within their state.”

I agree, but this is why I’m against the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act. That legislation would allow state governments to tax outside their borders.

Simply stated, a merchant in one state should not be forced to collect taxes for a government in another state.

P.P.S. This also explains why FATCA is such horrible legislation. It is an effort by the U.S. government to coerce banks in other nations to enforce bad IRS law.

If we care about liberty, we should make sure the power of government is constrained by borders.