A Thief in the Day Is No Better Than a Thief in the Night

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You're
walking home late at night. Against your better judgment, you decide
to take a shortcut down a dark alley. The next thing you know, a
thug with a gun is demanding that you hand over your wallet. Stuck
with the unfortunate choice of your money or your life, you nervously
but quickly (unless you're Jack Benny) relinquish your billfold
to the punk with the pistol. As soon as he's gone, you call the
cops and report the robbery.

Suppose,
however, that the thief told you as he was robbing you that he intended
to donate the money to the Red Cross. Would you still report the
robbery? What if he told you he was going to give you some of the
money back in the form of food coupons? Would you reconsider reporting
him given that he intends to do you a good turn with the money he's
pilfering from your pocket?

You
are a rare breed indeed if the thief's stated intentions to do good
with your money would cause you to change your mind about the crime
he is committing. Everyone recognizes that theft is theft regardless
of the ends to which the thief employs the stolen goods. After all,
if you want to donate to the Red Cross or buy yourself some food,
you should be free to do so with your own money. No one, however,
ought to have the right to force you to spend your money in ways
that you do not desire.

Now
let's pretend you're a constituent of the Honorable Mr. George Graft,
state legislator.

Mr.
Graft, already one of the highest-paid legislators in the country,
decides that his salary simply isn't high enough. He has expenses,
after all: travel costs to and from the state capital, newsletters
to tell his constituents all the wonderful things he's done for
them, gifts for his girlfriend, and so on. Thus Mr. Graft, along
with a slew of other legislators with similar expenses, decides
to vote himself a pay raise during a midnight legislative session.
Knowing that he can't legally receive a salary increase until the
start of the following year, Mr. Graft works out a plan to use a
so-called "unvouchered expense" to obtain the money he
so desperately needs right away. (After all, with the price of gas
these days, those travel expenses have shot up precipitously.) On
top of that, Mr. Graft also comes up with a way to guarantee himself
a raise well into the future by legislating automatic annual cost-of-living
increases to his salary.

If
you're like most of Mr. Graft's constituents, you are justifiably
outraged by this brazen display of robbery for personal gain. You
demand that the legislature rescind all of these salary-increasing
schemes at once; and furthermore, you threaten Mr. Graft with the
loss of his job if he fails to comply.

Mr.
Graft, however, is a crafty, not to mention greedy, fellow, and
he comes up with a plan to calm his restless constituents. He announces
that he will not deposit the salary increase into his personal bank
account but will instead donate it to charity. Are you any less
angry with your legislator now?

What?
That failed to cool down your boiling blood? Well, then, Mr. Graft
has one more trick up his sleeve. He now announces that he will
no longer accept the raise or donate it to charity. Instead, he
will put the money he would have received toward a grant to build
a hospital in his home district.

Voila!
If you're like the majority of Americans, Mr. Graft has just been
transformed in your eyes from an arrogant, avaricious crook into
a kind, generous benefactor of mankind. What, though, actually changed
about the scenario? Mr. Graft is still robbing you of your hard-earned
cash and still spending it on something on which you may or may
not have chosen to spend it were it left in your bank account. You
didn't give the thug in the alley a pass because he promised to
give you some of your money back in food coupons. Why give your
representative a pass because he promises to spend your money on
a seemingly worthwhile project in your neighborhood?

In
fact, this is exactly what has been going on in the Commonwealth
of Pennsylvania lately. Our
state legislators approved raises
of anywhere from 16 to 34
percent for themselves in a middle-of-the-night session, vaulting
them to second place among the highest-earning state legislators
in the country. Our governor signed the bill. Our legislators, taking
note of the fact that they cannot legally receive their salary increases
until the beginning of the next term, took advantage of a perk known
as "unvouchered expenses," whereby they can simply take
money out of the state's general fund for whatever expenses they
so desire without having to provide receipts, in order to obtain
their raises immediately. In addition, they included in the same
bill a provision for automatic
cost-of-living increases
in the future so that they will never
again have to endure the public's wrath for fattening their own
wallets.

The
citizens of Pennsylvania, smelling a whole capitol full of rats,
have expressed their outrage at this turn of events, demanding that
the legislators repeal the salary increase and forgo their backdoor
method of obtaining the raise via unvouchered expenses. This is
a healthy sign: People recognized that the legislature was picking
their pockets for the direct benefit of the legislators and rose
up against it (though whether the raise will actually be repealed
remains to be seen). Even when some legislators who voted for it
offered to donate their raises to charity or other worthy causes,
the people's anger did not subside; for this was an obvious attempt
to make the theft appear palatable since the end, a donation to
charity, would supposedly justify the means, highway robbery.

So
far, so good. Now the citizens of the Keystone State – and
all Americans – need to make one more leap of logic. Yes, it
is absolutely correct to be outraged over the legislators' theft
of their constituents' money for their own direct benefit; but what
about the (far more common) theft of constituents' money for the
legislators' indirect benefit? What about the directing of money
stolen from the taxpayers – for what else is taxation but legalized
theft? – toward various state programs such as student loans,
food stamps, public transportation, health care coverage, or toward
local do-good projects like hospitals, roads, schools, and so on?
Isn't every vote by practically every legislator on such matters
aimed at securing his reelection? Why do legislators (and congressmen
and U.S. senators, as
Jacob Hornberger pointed out
recently) send out newsletters
and make appearances in their districts to brag about the money
they've brought back to their constituents if not to garner votes
in the next election?

You
see, there's really no difference between a legislator's voting
himself cash directly into his bank account and his voting cash
into various government programs and projects. The former benefits
him immediately and tangibly, the latter at the next election and
in a less tangible fashion in the form of votes. Both methods purloin
the rightful property of the taxpayer and spend it in ways that
the taxpayer may or may not desire. Both redound to the benefit
of the legislator; and whether or not one approves of the end to
which the stolen money is directed, the means is still immoral.

So,
my fellow Americans, it is time to rise up not just against the
obvious, blatant money grabs of the State but also against the more
subtle money grabs in the guise of government programs and projects
that supposedly benefit the citizenry. Thieves, whether they hide
in dark alleys and hold us up with a gun to the head or pass laws
from plush offices and hold us up with the threat of imprisonment,
are thieves. Let's stop believing that the smiling thieves in the
tailored suits are doing us any favors by letting us have some of
our own money back in the ways they see fit. Let's stop honoring
these criminals and recognize them for what they are. Just as there
is no honor among thieves, let there be no honor bestowed upon thieves
by their victims.

August
20, 2005

Michael
Tennant [send him
mail
] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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