by Brian Balfour
Senior Vice President of Research, John Locke Foundation
One of the most prophetic quotes attributed to George Washington is as follows: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”
These words are critical to remember in today’s political climate, in which far too many equate compassion or morality with government programs.
Indeed, those of us in North Carolina can recall the years of big-government activism led by the Rev. William Barber marching under the banner of “Moral Mondays.”
Rather than exhibiting true morality, those who seek government programs to address society’s problems instead confirm that their vision for society endorses an aggressive use of force against innocent individuals and seeks to negate morality itself.
Barber for years lobbied for massive government programs under the cloak of “justice,” while characterizing as immoral any talk of individual liberty, free markets, or opting for voluntary solutions led by civil society to replace politics.
“Morality” and “justice,” according to progressives like Barber, can only be achieved through political means.
To evaluate these claims, we can compare the two institutional frameworks constituting the hero and villain in Barber’s narrative: government largesse versus voluntary free markets featuring private charity.
As Washington cautioned, the use of force backed by the threat of violence is the bedrock upon which all government programs are built. Their very existence relies on compelling citizens to pay their taxes lest they be punished for their resistance. And to be clear, such threats are not leveled against the perpetrators of any crime, but rather against innocent citizens who have aggressed against no one.
By contrast, in a free-market, capitalist system based upon property rights, people and institutions rely on peaceful, voluntary exchange for their existence. From the biggest corporation to the local farmer, free enterprises survive only if they offer something that others value at a price they are willing to pay.
Furthermore, consumers are free to refrain from turning over their money to an individual or business if they object to the goods or services offered in exchange. In response, the producer would either silently suffer the financial loss or use peaceful means to persuade the consumer to begin or once again resume their voluntary exchange relationship.
Contrast that with how the government would react if you decided to stop paying taxes because you don’t like or need the services it offers and provides in return. Agents of the government would descend upon you and threaten fines and imprisonment – resorting to physical assault if necessary – if you didn’t obey.
So without your having threatened or aggressed against anyone, but merely by boycotting the submission of your property (via taxes) to the government, this organization would not stop short of invading your property and initiating violence against you.
Such is the true nature of how to achieve the leftist “moral code” of “justice.”
I prefer the definition of justice offered by the late George Mason University professor and columnist Walter Williams: “What’s just has been debated for centuries, but let me offer you my definition of social justice: ‘I keep what I earn, and you keep what you earn.’ Do you disagree? Well, then, tell me how much of what I earn belongs to you – and why.”
What’s just has been debated for centuries, but let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn, and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well, then, tell me how much of what I earn belongs to you – and why.Walter Williams
Finally, Barber’s and like-minded progressives’ brand of “morality” not only extols the use of aggression against innocents, it would run the risk of extinguishing the ability of individuals to exercise moral judgment, thus negating real morality. True morality and charity for those in need is housed in the hearts of individuals expressing their own compassion, not in response to political orders.
As noted economist and political philosopher Friedrich A. Hayek stated, “Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s own conscience, the awareness of duty not exacted by compulsion, but the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.”
In sum, “No action can be virtuous unless it is freely chosen,” as libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard wrote.
Humans act in accordance with their own judgment. This includes judgment about helping others in need, as determined by one’s own conscience. Government, however, interferes with the connection between judgment and action. As the state forcibly outsources the exercise of moral compassion, individuals’ ability to do so atrophies.
And fighting against government largesse is not only a fight on behalf of a more robust development of human compassion and morality, it is also a fight on behalf of society’s poor. Big government programs trap far too many families in generational poverty, destroy the traditional, two-parent family, and foster a culture of dependency that leads to helplessness. Free-market capitalism has done more to lift people out of poverty than any government program could dream of.
As economist Milton Friedman said, “So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system.”
The left’s blustering about “morality” is really a smokescreen designed to distract from their vision of a society organized around the threat of government force against innocents and devoid of the exercise of individuals freely expressing true moral acts.
The result is greater tension, division, and resentment. We should never cede the moral high ground to those who desire to see the zero-sum of politics crowd out the mutual benefit of voluntary cooperation.