It has often been said that government is required to help the poor and disabled; however the evidence consistently shows that government’s involvement has not reduced poverty levels. Seeing that government has never (to my knowledge) cured a societal ill like poverty, why then does there remain so much confidence in it for future success? Could it be that support for government welfare programs stems not only from those who directly benefit from being on it, but also as a path to absolution by those who advocate for it?
So, what do I mean by absolution? First, let us discuss the idea that our government has a responsibility to the poor. Milton Friedman wisely pointed out that governments cannot have a responsibility to people…instead, only individuals can have responsibility. We often hear advocates of government welfare say that we are “our brother’s keeper,” a clear reference to the book of Genesis in the Bible; however, the verse is talking about an individual’s (Cain’s) responsibility to his own brother (Abel) and not society’s responsibility to a person or people. This is a blatant misuse of a Bible verse with the intent of misleading people who, by faith, feel an obligation to fulfill Biblical mandates (at least to some extent).
The question then is how does the brother’s keeper example contrast with government welfare and where does the concept of absolution come in? Let us assume that people do feel an innate obligation to help others; which is arguable, but for the sake of this discussion we must accept it generally. What is the easiest way for people to meet that obligation to others? One could work harder and produce more so that they may transfer (via donation) some of that excess production for the consumption of others. Or, one could spend a few minutes every couple of years voting for a group of people who will give money (that is largely not theirs) to others. Both seems to meet the goal of “helping others” yet one of the two options entails significantly less hardship on the individual choosing to vote instead of donate. It is certainly much easier to vote charity to others than it is to actually provide it. Particularly when a good segment of society pays nothing to fund these programs; the estimated percentage of people in America who file tax returns and owe $0 (or less) is 43% (as of 2013).
In the case of this group of people, a vote for welfare is not only costless and potentially beneficial, but also absolves them totally of any further responsibility to be their “brother’s keeper.” In fact, an IRS analysis of the 2012 tax year showed that the most generous states (by percentage of their income donated) were “red states” that voted for Mitt Romney. This implies that those people that believe government should not engage in coerced charity (to as great of an extent) are much more likely to give of their own money while people who see government as a reasonable and righteous source of charity (albeit at the point of a gun, a fact they often ignore) sees little reason to give of their own money when they can instead vote for “charitable” actions.
Therefore, a vote for government welfare represents a much cheaper way (for the voter) to donate largely because others pay the bill. Individuals can then fulfill their sense of obligation from the pockets of others and still gain the sense of giving that usually motivates people to actually give. This leaves people who preach an obligation to the poor and disabled from actually having any responsibility for meeting that obligation personally. Thus, the individuals that choose the voting method over the donating method have effectively been absolved of their responsibility to others. Effectively, those people do not practice what they preach; instead they demand others serve as their brother’s keeper, while they hold the moral high ground through their mere demanding of action by force. This reminds me of the brilliant words of Ayn Rand who said:
“It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.”
Interestingly, the people most hurt are the ones who do, most significantly, need the help. For the real crime is not that everyone does not have access to “assistance”; instead, the real crime lay in the reality that those who truly cannot do for themselves are left in poverty so as to satiate the majority who wishes to forgo their own personal responsibility for their own monetary gain. Simply put the absolution through government costs the absolved little, while that release from obligations is paid for dearly by those they claim to be helping. This is the danger of idealism rooted in greater good terms; for the actual good is left subjected to the eye of the beholder while the intent of actions is weighted far greater than actual outcomes. I close with the definition of absolution: “the formal release of guilt, obligation, or punishment.”