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Commentary

How Government Destroys Moral Character


     
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SAN FRANCISCO—“Thou shalt not steal” is a rule as old as human society itself. We are taught early to respect what belongs to others, and by the time we are three years old, we understand the difference between mine and thine. Those who do not take the lesson to heart and persist in treating everybody’s property as something to take, so long as they can get away with it, are viewed as sociopaths.

Yet government as we know it rests entirely on this kind of sociopathy. Rulers take what does not belong to them and dispose of it to suit themselves.

Abetted by misguided or co-opted intellectuals, the rulers weave a cloak of legitimacy to disguise their theft and hence to ease their extraction of wealth from the rightful owners.

When governments justify their actions on “democratic” grounds, many people are taken in by this ideological sleight of hand.

They believe that “we tax ourselves” so that the rulers “we choose” can dispose of the booty in ways “we voted for,” and they close their eyes to the gulf that separates this pristine ideological vision from the sordid reality of the government’s actual conduct. People then take for granted that anything the government will give them they have a perfect right to receive.

For example, many farmers now receive, first, subsidies to purchase crop insurance, then insurance benefits when their crops fall short and then additional government payments denominated “disaster aid.” By means of this double-dipping, as The Washington Post reported recently, U.S. farmers have extracted almost $24 billion from taxpayers to fund crop-insurance and disaster-aid programs since 2000.

Among the recipients, the prevailing attitude seems to be the one expressed by Tulare County farmer Charles Fisher: “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 concisely expressed how it destroys moral character. The swag is there for the taking. Financial gain trumps moral probity. Don’t be a chump; take the money.

I don’t know Charles Fisher, but if he is like many others who profit by despoiling their fellow man, with government as the go-between, he is not the kind of man who would pocket his neighbor’s wallet if he saw it fall to the ground unnoticed; nor is he the kind of man who would wait beside the road to rob the first passer-by at gunpoint. 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.

The farmers, of course, are not uniquely culpable. They are morally the same as countless others, albeit more politically successful than most others. The moral rot is pervasive: It defiles business operators, doctors, lawyers, clergy, students, retirees, and numerous others along with the farmers.

“The state,” Frederic Bastiat wrote 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.

Regardless of how one assesses the morality of modern government’s hypertrophied taking from Peter and giving to Paul, however, this activity definitely 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. 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 is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

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The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups. Learn More »»






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