Monday, January 07, 2008

Freedom & the Needy

Tibor R. Machan

The defenders of the free society assume that, generally, people can fend for themselves, often alone, more often in voluntary cooperation. But they are not blind to the plain fact that not everyone can or will do this--there are serious hard luck cases, people in dire straits, as well as many who make mistakes by failing to prepare for bad times or by producing bad circumstances for themselves. So such folks will require support in order for them to live reasonably well.

What the champions of the free society assume, significantly and unlike those who distrust liberty, is that the support required for those in special need should come from fellow citizens who will provide the necessary support of their own free will, from a spirit of generosity. This should not involve the government, which in a free country has as its proper task to secure the rights of the citizenry against criminals and foreign aggressors. Why?

For one, government as property understood is certain select people using force defensively. When the force is used coercively, the “government” has gone astray, become corrupt, by engaging in the violation of citizens’ rights. This is simple to grasp: It is akin to when police officers use force not to fight crime but to subdue citizens to follow some course of action the officers happen to prefer but are not morally authorized to enforce. Sadly, of course, all too many police officers do act in such morally unauthorized ways around the globe, including in America, just as too many governments overstep their authority and instead of defending their citizens embark upon ordering them about to act as the officials deem proper and desirable.

Another reason why it is a very bad idea to conceive of government as doing more than protecting the rights of citizens is that when government lends a hand, it does so mostly to advance the agenda of its agents and only rarely just the interest of the citizenry. Pro-active government policies involve "self-dealing" because this is what comes naturally, this is what is most easily achieved.

Helping others is a very difficult task since few know, especially in far away centers of power, what those in dire straits actually benefit from. It's no simple task to be the supporter of others, especially if one is using resources that aren't one's own. Just consider how skilled those in the helping professions must be, how much schooling they require and how often even they get it wrong about what actually helps their clients.

So in a free country support for those in special need, those in dire straits, must not come from government but from fellow citizens. They are the ones who can offer genuine help to the needy, on terms the needy accept freely. Otherwise the needy are demeaned, their human dignity is undermined--they become wards of the state, not people who are being offered and freely accept their fellows’ help.

It appears that politicians willfully evade this fact, especially during election campaigns. All we hear these days is how once elected, candidates will provide for those who need something, necessarily at the expense of others who have not volunteered to give help but are being forced to provide it. This is precisely what a free society cannot tolerate and the policy that leads to its demise. One need but reflect on the fact that throughout human history the tyrants, tsars, dictators, and nearly all others who took up the task of helping the people turned out to be vicious oppressors. The people lacked sovereignty and these “leaders” grabbed it all for themselves.

This bad habit, of conceiving of politicians and bureaucrats as embarking on helping out the needy, is still very much with us--it is that insidious governmental habit and it is far worse than any dependence on using debilitating drugs or engaging in other self-destructive practices. Yet because so much of human history involved not mutual respect among people but the conquest of some of them by others, the radical idea that we can live in peace and mutual respect for each other’s rights is taking a long time to become standard practice.

The American Founders began the radical reformation of government along these lines but they only gave it a start. Sadly, it seems that contemporary politicians do not really want to follow their lead and want to reinstitute the old regime whereby government was seen as the care taker, not rights protector, within the realm.

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