The Nanny State and General Welfare

An important point that is seldom made in modern political discourse is the uncreative nature of government. By this I mean that government, as an entity, does not and cannot create—it can only regulate. The governing documents of this country—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—limit “government more than governments had ever been limited in any nation” prior. And for the first half of its 224-year existence, Leonard Read notes that:

No citizen turned to government for help and for two reasons: (1) it had nothing on hand to give, and (2) it had not the power to take from some and give to others. For more than ten decades a self-responsible, self-reliant citizenry!

Even today, when Read’s “no citizen” statement is obviously not applicable, it must be pointed out that the “helping” funds possessed by the monstrosity of modern American federal government are only made possible due to the initiative, drive, and work ethic of its citizens. It is by no means due to government’s creative ability to attain wealth or innovate. Government is strictly a non-creative entity.

However, our modern predicament of a “nanny state” taking care of our every need did not just happen overnight. It happened when a previously “self-reliant citizenry” gave up on the idea of private charity—choosing faceless government bureaucracy over the simple commandment to “love thy neighbor.”

There are two ways to aid those who are in distress, suffering from the lack of food and clothing and other life-sustaining items. The first is the practice of Judeo-Christian charity—voluntary assistance. When governments pre-empt the practice of philanthropy—food stamps, social security and other “welfare” measures—the practice of private charity is dramatically abandoned. If a neighbor is starving, most citizens say, “That’s the government’s job.”

But why will most citizens say this? Because they have never known it any other way. They truly believe it to be the government’s job because they have never asked themselves who else would do it. After all, they reason, isn’t this why we pay taxes?

Well, no, it’s not. The Constitution itself outlines taxation as a necessary function of the federal government (via Congress), but it is very specific about what these taxes may be used for: “to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States” (Article 1, Section 8). While the rampant and wasteful spending of our current federal government in the name of “general welfare” would no doubt shock him, Alexander Hamilton supported a much broader interpretation of the “general welfare” clause than other Founders—most notably Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Madison argued that “general welfare” was constrained to what was enumerated elsewhere in the Constitution—nothing more was allowed, nothing less was forbidden; Jefferson supported this view as well. Monroe argued that “general” meant “national,” i.e. only what was directly beneficial to the welfare of the Union, and not to States or individuals. Either way, it should be clear that “general welfare” according to the Constitution is not synonymous with the modern welfare system in America. Giving individual citizens a guaranteed income was not what the founders had in mind.

Leonard Read makes the observation that “charity, when properly practiced, has two disciplines: (1) never let the recipient be aware of the source and (2) let the giver take no personal credit for the gift-that is, avoid self-conceit.” Note well that both of these disciplines are exactly the opposite of what happens with government “charity”: The recipient is most certainly aware of the source and the giver is most certainly taking credit for it. In fact, the government takes so much credit for it that those who receive government money are usually under the delusion that it is actually the government’s money. They are never informed that this money is being forcibly seized from their industrious neighbors. Leonard Read continues:

The second way to alleviate distress is as much a mystery to most citizens as the appropriate practice of charity. What is the real road to success so rarely believed? It is the free and unfettered market with government limited strictly to keeping the peace and invoking a common justice—no exception, none whatsoever, dictocrats in the past tense!

In other words, the best way to ensure that private, not government, charity blooms in a society, is to limit government to the dual role of promoting peace and punishing evil: the very two things outlined and defined by the Constitution. The U.S. Constitution is a limiting document: it defines not only what the federal government must do, but also what it must not do. Giving money to one group of citizens that it has taken from another is most certainly not a legitimate (i.e. legal) function of the federal government.