The Principle of Need

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George W. Bush tried his hand at political philosophy during his budget speech to Congress.

We are not talking about high-level stuff here, but there’s enough in the following sentences to suggest that he labors under a profound illusion about the nature of the State.

On the one hand, he decried "those who want more government, regardless of the cost," comparing their errors to "those who want less government, regardless of the need." He wants a third way: "Government should be active, but limited, engaged, but not overbearing."

Count me among those who want less government. Much less. Government should be less active, less engaged. Indeed, if we are to follow the political vision of the framers and those who inspired them, government should not be actively engaged in the daily affairs of Americans at all.

Any time government intervenes in the economy, it imposes burdens on some while granting favors to others. Those who benefit do so at others’ expense and without their consent. Every regulation and every tax is an act of coercion that deprives people of the right to act, trade, and exchange according to their own private interests, which, in a market economy, work together to achieve the public interest.

Can government really be active and, at the same time, limited? History suggests otherwise. Anytime government steps into any sector of society, it is nearly impossible to restrain the extent of the intervention. Why? Bureaucrats like to exercise power. It’s why they become bureaucrats. They can always find good reasons to expand their control. And there are always those pleased to cheer them on if they can get something for nothing.

Bush’s own budget illustrates the problem. He proposes a major increase in Medicare funding to cover prescription drugs. This is a huge mistake. It is going to increase the price of drugs and inflate the demand beyond what the market would dictate. Some physicians hold that this program threatens life itself by further medicating the already over-medicated elderly. But the groups that stand to benefit in the short term (drug companies, seniors, and bureaucrats) are far more powerful than those of us who pay the bill.

Intellectually, the logic is difficult to resist. Once you concede that there is a role for government in providing medical benefits, any attempt to limit those benefits appears arbitrary. Why provide free heart surgery but insist that the patient pay for the drugs to keep him alive? Accept the socialist idea in one area, and you implicitly embrace the entire something-for-nothing worldview.

Another example: Social Security. The system as it stands is a tax-and-spend transfer program that pretends to be an insurance program. The only way out is to permit people to drop out, while either repudiating the liabilities or funding them out of general revenue.

But so many people are living off the system that it is difficult to cut, much less eliminate. Certainly Bush’s third option of "private accounts" is fiscal nonsense, a ruse and a delusion, which is why he is refusing to offer details of his plan. (Once the details emerge from his proposed commission, it will be soundly rejected: guaranteed.)

But George W. offers the following criticism of those who think the way I do. He says we are depriving people of their "needs." It’s just not true. Denying government benefits doesn’t deprive anyone of any particular good or service available in a free market. It only denies them the means to acquire that good or service through coercion. People may "need" drugs, but it doesn’t follow that they must therefore get them through a government program.

Since when has the excuse of need been a moral justification for transgressing property rights? If a criminal steals your wallet, it is no excuse that he needed it. There are right and wrong ways to go about satisfying needs. Conking people on the head, whether you do it personally or ask a bureaucrat to do it for you, is not a civilized way to meet your need for money. The need for free drugs is not an excuse for a government program any more than the need for sex is an excuse for rape.

Imagine if we expand George W.’s principle of "need," such that everything that anyone needs is provided for by the State. We would quickly end up with a completely socialist system of mass looting. A society of liberty doesn’t say anything concerning what people need or do not need. It leaves that up to the individual. A free society says that you can make your own decisions about your needs, but you must find peaceful ways to go about fulfilling them.

As a part of the budget plan, Bush believes criminals in prison need help in caring for their children outside of prison. Hence he wants to spend $700 million to fund the "Federal Compassion Capital Fund" that, among other things, will hire "mentors" to somehow care for the kids.

The tipoff that something is wrong is the linking of the words "federal" and "compassion." No one doubts that kids with parents in jail need help. But is the government to provide this? Not in the real world. These kids are victims, but their best hopes lies with family and friends, not bureaucrats or government programs. Never forget that government always uses personal tragedy to gain inroads into places it doesn’t belong.

I conclude that Bush’s criticism of the limited government view is unsound, and that his proposed vision of a government that is limited to meeting needs is no solution at all. His firm attachment to bipartisan compromise has thrust him into embracing an intellectually incoherent program, whose only redeeming virtue is that it slightly cuts taxes.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site,

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