by Walter Block
President Bush rightly notes that government has been a dismal failure in terms of alleviating poverty. Bureaucrats have thrown (our) money at the problem for most of the last century — at a feverish clip since the 1960s — and the difficulties have worsened, not improved. Our president quite perceptively sees that the faith based private charities have had a much more salutary impact, not least because they are run on a voluntary basis, and if they fail their funds tend to dry up. This contrasts sharply with the welfare bureaucracy, where continued disasters call forth greater and greater budgets. Jay Leno and his pinko ilk may make fun of W's intelligence, but they are miles behind him in their appreciation for private as opposed to public initiatives in this regard.
Why, specifically, have private charities run rings around their public counterparts in terms of easing poverty? This is because the former, not the latter, insist that the poor not remain passive, but rather undertake efforts in their own behalf. Often, they are called upon to personally or by letter thank the specific donors responsible for their upkeep, there being no "welfare rights" in this sector of the economy. When recipients realize that flesh and blood creatures, just like themselves, are the source of their support, they tend less to take it for granted. Then, too, churches and synagogues address the entire problem — spiritual, religious, moral, as well as economic, not just the latter, as does the so called "welfare" department.
From this, the present administration draws the not totally unreasonable conclusion that instead of continuing to allow credentialed social workers employed by government to throw money at poverty and homelessness, these funds should be funneled through the private charitable sector. It is a sort of privatization of a public purpose, or a "contracting out," of which many moderate free enterprisers have approved in the past (think tradeable emissions rights, school vouchers, private warehousing of prisoners, etc.) In order to obviate any possible difficulty with church-state overlap, the plan calls for financing of meals and beds only, not prayer books, etc.
There have been howls of outrage launched at this compassionate conservative plan, much of it emanating from those who call themselves libertarian. Their arguments, too, just like Dubya's, have a veneer of good sense. They maintain that the key reason for the success of private ventures is their voluntariness; giving the church tax revenues would undermine this. Another difficulty is that "he who pays the piper calls the tune": with government money comes government oversight, and then we are right back to where we started; the private sector institutions will come to resemble their public counterparts, warts and all. For example, the Salvation army, which accepted some government funding to support its efforts, has just been hit with a twenty five page long list of requirements, mandating among many other things that its menus be approved by an American Dietetic Association registrant, and that all its employees pass complaint and grievance procedure courses.
It cannot be denied that there is a modicum of truth, too, in this charge. There is little doubt that anything the state touches it will poison, and private charity is certainly no exception to this general rule.
However, I venture to suggest, this is entirely apart from what should be the libertarian concern. We are not directly concerned with curing poverty, or homelessness. To be sure, these come about as a result of implementing our program, but they are not to be confused with it. Libertarians of course do not oppose increasing the wealth of the poor (and of everyone else for that matter) but this is hardly the essence of this philosophy. Very much to the contrary, plumb line libertarianism consist of nothing more than an insistence that all interactions take place on a voluntary basis; that no one be forced to do anything, except to keep his mitts off of the persons and legitimately owned property of everyone else. (Limited government libertarians, or minarchists, would make an exception for courts, armies and police; but certainly not for the welfare state.)
Let us, then, instead of confusing ourselves with conservatives, remind ourselves of our own philosophy, and use it to analyze George Bush's "compassion." Let us, that is, sit back, relax, and take another look at this plan from a quintessentially libertarian perspective.
We have here a man, President Bush, who is in effect a thief He and his minions have stolen vast amounts of money from an innocent populace (e.g., any taxes at all for anarcho-libertarians, tax funds used for anything other than armies, courts and police as far as the minarchists are concerned). Libertarians, particularly the "charitable ones" may not so much blame the man as the system. After all, George W has only been in office for six months; he may any day soon do away with this pernicious practice in its entirety. But here he is, forget about the antecedents for the moment, offering to return to private individuals vast amounts of money that does not properly belong to him in the first place. How are we to greet this move?
I say, in the spirit of that great saint Ragnar Danneskjold, we ought to rejoice. This removes from this fictional character the responsibility of doing what he did in Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. There is no need to seize any government money; it is being freely offered!
Now, of course, it would be far better if these funds were directed right back at their rightful owners; very little of it was mulcted from the churches and other charitable organizations. And if the latter turned libertarian over night, they might well take these monies and return them to the long-suffering taxpayers, from whom they were seized. But surely it is better that the churches retain this financing rather than that they remain under the control of those who now illegitimately hold it?
Suppose the Crips, or the Blood, or the Mafia, or the Cosa Nostra any other gang suddenly made an announcement: here are several millions of dollars we are giving to the Salvation Army. The Sally Annes might refuse to accept it, on grounds it is dirty money. But why is government money cleaner? If anything, it is more honest in that these gangsters, after robbing us, do not, as Spooner reminds us, have the temerity to stick around and pose as our saviors.
Now, there is obviously no requirement on the part of the Salvation Army to accept these funds. My claim, though, just as it was when the Libertarian Party faced the possibility of accepting "matching funds" from government under election law, that this is a matter of pragmatism, not principle. There is no libertarian principle which precludes the transfer of funds from those who have stolen them, to those who have not (such as the LP, or the SA).
It is not as if President Bush were offering vast sums of money to the "usual suspects" in the business community, who actively aid and abet the power structure in their statist depredations. Neither voluntary charities, nor the Libertarian Party, are part of the ruling class; e.g., those in and out of government who are responsible for our present political economic plight.
Conservative libertarians oppose Bushes program of "Compassionate Conservatism" on the ground that it will not alleviate poverty, and will instead in effect suborn those private charities that have hitherto been part of the solution, not the problem. But it is a direct violation of libertarian principles to oppose the disgorging of government funds to the private sector! We ought to adopt our own unique libertarian voice in analyzing issues of the day, and not fall into lock step with moderate so called friends of liberty.
September 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 LewRockwell.com