“Thou shalt not steal” is a rule as old as human society itself. It must have been, else no complex human society would have proved viable.
We are all taught very early to respect what belongs to others: “Don’t take your sister’s toy away from her,” your mother admonished, punishing you if you persisted in your toddler’s larceny. By the time you were three years old, you understood the difference between mine and thine. If you didn’t take the lesson to heart and persisted beyond your childhood years in treating everybody’s property as something for you to take, so long as you could get away with it, then you were viewed as a sociopath, an enemy of decency and of civilization itself.
Government as we know it, however, rests entirely on this kind of sociopathy. Rulers take what does not belong to them and dispose of it to suit themselves.
When the government has only recently placed itself in a position of domination over a group of people, the people recognize full well that the government’s taking amounts to looting. They pony up only because they are given the stark choice of “your money or your life,” and they want to go on living.
When a government has been entrenched in a society for a long time, however, its exactions become a “fact of life,” a matter of “just how things are,” and people tend to lose their awareness that obtaining something from the government amounts to receiving stolen property because the government, having nothing legitimately its own, can give only what it has unjustly wrenched from others. Rulers, abetted by their kept intellectuals, go to great lengths to weave a cloak of legitimacy to disguise their theft, because by doing so they ease the difficulties of extracting wealth from the rightful owners.
In some cases, especially in societies with governments that attempt to justify their existence and their actions on “democratic” grounds, many people may be taken in by this ideological sleight of hand. They may actually believe that “we tax ourselves” so that the rulers “we choose” can dispose of the loot in ways that “we voted for,” failing to appreciate the gulf that separates this pristine ideological vision from the sordid facts on the ground.
Once this sort of thinking becomes pervasive, however, it serves to sanctify specific forms of predation without any clear limit. People come to believe, or at least they work hard at convincing themselves, that anything the government might stand ready to give them, they thereby have a perfect right to receive. At this point, all contact with genuine morality has been lost, and because a society of sociopaths cannot remain viable in the long haul, the nation that embarks on this course has set sail toward its own ruin.
I thought about this matter for the umpteenth time when I read an October 15, 2006, Washington Post story by Gilbert M. Gaul, Dan Morgan, and Sarah Cohen, “Aid Is a Bumper Crop for Farmers.” The story concerns the widespread practice of farmers’ receiving, first, subsidies to purchase crop insurance, then payments from that insurance when their crops fall short, and then, on top of that payoff, additional government payments denominated “disaster aid.” Many farmers routinely collect large amounts of money from the public treasury by means of this double-dipping — altogether they’ve extracted almost $24 billion from taxpayers to fund crop-insurance and disaster-aid programs since 2000.
The reporters interviewed several farmers and others not only about the workings of these programs but also about their propriety. Although none of the recipients quoted in the article exactly gloated about his serial commission of the offense, none chose simply to condemn it, either. The prevailing attitude seems to be the one expressed by farmer Charles Fisher, of Tulare County, California: “Whether it’s right or wrong, if they are offering it, you’re foolish to turn it down.”
In that single sentence, Fisher has encapsulated the rotten core of the welfare state, and he has concisely expressed how such a state destroys the people’s moral character. The loot is there for the taking; you’re a fool not to take it, notwithstanding that your taking it may be wrong. Financial gain trumps moral probity. Don’t be a chump; take the money.
I don’t know Charles Fisher, but if he is like a great many others who profit by despoiling their fellow man, with government acting as the facilitator of the crime, then I suspect that he is probably not the kind of man who would pocket his neighbor’s wallet if he saw it fall to the ground unnoticed, and he is almost certainly not the kind of man who would wait beside the road to carry out an armed robbery of the first passer-by. Yet he will steal from countless strangers — in effect, a little bit from everyone who pays federal taxes — “whether it’s right or wrong,” simply to bulk up his income from farming. (Needless to say, the so-called disaster payments rarely go to anyone who has suffered a genuine disaster; like most of what the government does, this program is for the most part a sham from the get-go.)
It would be tempting to attribute this agri-plunder to some idiosyncratic moral defect caused by the farmers’ spending too much time in the sun. We might recall, for example, H. L. Mencken’s trenchant description of the American farmer: “No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to students of the Anthropoidea.” Unfortunately, however, the farmers are morally the same as countless others; they are simply more politically successful than most of the others.
Sad to say, for every specific form of farmer swag, the government must open the door to a thousand other sorts of booty completely unrelated to agriculture. The moral rot is comprehensive, not confined to a few bad apples, and it defiles businessmen, doctors, lawyers, clergymen, students, retirees, and countless others along with the farmers. Virtually everybody has checked his morality along with his pistol at the entrance to the legislature.
"The state,” Frdric Bastiat told us long ago, “is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else." If only the great man could see us now. Even he might be amazed, and appalled, by the heights to which this futile quest has been raised. In fact, this hoary fantasy arguably has become the central truth about government in our time.
I make these observations not because I hold myself to be an especially upright man; far from it. Yet one need not have earned an A+ in moral rectitude to understand that, however one may assess the morality of modern government’s hypertrophied taking from Peter and giving to Paul, this activity bears a deadly fruit. Because it creates such widespread and powerful incentives for people to engage in government-facilitated predation, instead of production, it diverts great energies, intelligence, and other resources to the pursuit of privilege — to what the public choice analysts call “rent seeking.” As more and more such diversion occurs, the society falls farther and farther below the full realization of its potential to create genuine wealth.
Eventually, everybody will be fighting to seize and consume the seed corn, and none will remain for planting next year’s crop. There’s a natural, unavoidable outcome of such action. Ask any farmer.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. He is also the author of Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan.