Yesterday, this Spherical Model blog discussed what is being conserved by conservatism. What, then, should be government’s role in conserving (or allowing for) civilization?
Here’s one basic rule: we can only give government powers that we innately have ourselves. For example, if someone comes onto my property and threatens to take my life or my belongings, I have the right to protect myself—even to the taking of the intruder’s life, if necessary. Self-protection, then, is a natural right.
Since I have the right to protect myself, I also have the right to combine with my neighbors, who also have the right to protect themselves, and hire ourselves a defender, such as a sheriff. We pay him to do that job for us, so we can spend more of our time working our farm or otherwise enjoying our property (i.e., pursuing happiness).
Do I have a right to make as much off my farm as my neighbor does? Not necessarily. He might be better at cultivating. He might be willing to invest in superior seed. He might have purchased a more fertile piece of ground. But, what if I work just as hard as he does but can’t produce as much? Is that fair?
If it isn’t, are you willing to go to your neighbor and demand that he pony up the difference between his surplus and yours? Do you feel you have the right to make that demand? What if he doesn’t agree? Do you have the right to take from his surplus to make things equal? Or would you consider that theft? (Would you consider it theft if he took your surplus from you to equal things out during a year when you prospered?)
If you don’t have the right to take from your neighbor (and I’m assuming here that you can clearly see you don’t), then you don’t have the right to hire your government to do it for you. Income redistribution, then, is not a power you have, so you can’t hand over that power to your government. When governments redistribute wealth, they do it by coercion, or theft; they do not do it by right.
How, then, do the poor get taken care of? Surely a civilized society takes care of the poor.
If the society is truly civilized (by definition, made up of people who care about one another and live good, religiously meaningful lives), then those with surplus will freely give to the less fortunate, to alleviate their suffering. (“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction….” James 1:27) We call this charity. It’s another one of those words whose meaning has been twisted. Taking charity sounds like a negative thing. There was a time when no one would admit to being desperate enough to take charity; it hurt their pride. It meant they weren’t pulling their weight in society and had made themselves a burden.
There’s an anecdote from To Kill a Mockingbird, where the young girl, Scout, learns how her father, Atticus, has helped someone too poor to pay for legal help Scout’s father had done. The man feels his debt, and periodically brings stove wood (because he can’t pay with money, since he doesn’t have enough). And eventually both Scout’s father and the man will know that the debt has been duly paid.
I say it was still charity, in the good sense. Atticus Finch did his work as a lawyer, knowing the client had no money but had a need. He could have gotten stove wood for himself. But he allowed the repayment as a kindness, to show he respected the man’s willingness to work, to show the man wasn’t demanding help he couldn’t pay for. Their good will toward one another is charity (caring), in both directions.
But we have come to think of charity as degrading, in itself. Supposedly it protects dignity by saving the receiver from taking it, and instead having government provide as an entitlement. The government takes the money (taxes), so there is no good will coming from the giver. And the receiver gets the handout according to the law, as their entitlement, even though they didn’t work for it. Their being “entitled” means they only got what they deserved, so no one mentions that it had to be taken from someone who earned it (and therefore by definition justly deserved it). The entitlement handout doesn’t inspire them to work, nor to offer thanks to the giver. So neither giver nor receiver gets any civilizing result from the monetary exchange arranged for by the government.
The way to charitably (caringly) help the poor is not to offer entitlements (to guarantee outcomes regardless of effort as if they were rights), but to help them through hard times by freely giving—giving care, money, training for a better future—and accepting thanks and offers to pay as possible or pay forward. These are things that churches and philanthropies do rather well but government does poorly.
According to the Spherical Model, whenever government usurps powers that the people do not have the right to vest in government, society sinks south of the freedom zone and toward tyranny.
French political economist Frederick Bastiat, in his work The Law, explains it well:
“Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” (The Law, p. 6)
“How is the 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 Law, p. 21)
The US Constitution doesn’t grant any redistribution of income abilities to the government. The people had no such right to grant. So the next question is, once a government has illegally assumed powers not granted by the people, how do the people stop the usurpation? I don’t know the answer. I’m working on it. The minute I figure it out, I’ll let you know.