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

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

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