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Government not the solution to all problems

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 24, 2002

Some of the responses to last my article, "Turning Freedom Into Free Lunch," effectively demonstrated why the public tends to support government growth. In contemporary America, the state is a super-problem solver and if you don't support government intervention in an area to solve a particular problem, you must be opposed to that problem being solved.

One respondent wrote, "Any compassionate society takes care of its unfortunate members--the disabled, the elderly, the children of the poor who aren't able to support them (sic). Any 'free' society that permits its powerless citizens to suffer isn't worthy of being called civilized--even wolves take care of their own."

Notice the assumption that the choice is between government redistribution of wealth and the mass starvation of the poor. There can be no way to care for the poor without the government forcibly extracting compassion from people's paychecks. This does not take into consideration that perhaps a compassionate society's obligation to its unfortunate members belongs to families, communities and individuals, not government. Maybe there is more to compassion than simply endorsing new government programs and supporting politicians who promise to keep as many people as possible on the public dole.

This same response accused me of wanting to tell the nation's elderly parents that they must live in their children's spare rooms and church poor houses rather than in their own homes during their "golden years." Never mind that the current Social Security system in fact regressively taxes people who are still working and building their nest eggs to pay benefits to a demographic group that is statistically much more likely to already own their own homes. To my critic, the idea of families supporting their own aging parents is inherently uncompassionate but it is perfectly compassionate to support them by having money withheld from strangers' paychecks and transferred to anonymous bureaucrats. The adage that charity begins at home should perhaps be replaced with charity begins in Washington.

If I was similarly inclined to equate certain political opinions with personal character, I might turn to my critic and suggest that his support for the welfare state is motivated by his desire to dump his elderly relatives in a home and stick Medicare with the bills rather than open up his own home to them. This would of course be unfair and simplistic. So why is it considered to be fair to accuse critics of government programs of actually favoring the problems these programs are intended to solve?

Criticism of affirmative action is labeled as support for discrimination against women and minorities. Criticism of federal arts subsidies is derided as contempt for the arts and a desire for censorship. If you were against the outrageous farm bill just passed by Congress and signed by President Bush, you must want to bankrupt family farms and make Americans starve. If you criticize the unconstitutional federal role in education, you must want children to be ignorant. If you question the environmentalists' latest dogma about how we should order the economy and live our lives, you want to pollute and destroy the planet.

Statists don't engage in debate as often as they engage in character assassination. Rather than arguing about whether government is the solution to a problem, they would rather accuse doubters of not wanting a problem to be solved. This is why left-liberals typically slur their opponents as bigots, pawns of the rich, polluters and oppressors of the poor. It never occurs to them that perhaps their opponents aren't opposed to spending money on education, health care, environmental conservation and helping the poor. Maybe they disagree about who is supposed to be doing the spending - the people or the government.

People who think that economic freedom is nothing more than "freedom to starve" for the poor don't understand what freedom has the power to create. Unleashing individuals to achieve and produce provides a true form of social security, creating new wealth and sustaining prosperity. Freedom leads to innovation, creativity, production and growth. Government policies cannot always accomplish what would happen in the spontaneous order. It takes more than a government program for a person trapped in poverty to change their life. No government agency can effectively micromanage a multi-trillion-dollar economy driven by millions, if not billions, of individual choices. Statists ignore the wealth of problem-solving potential that exists outside of government, sometimes even outside of deliberate human design.

This doesn't mean that there isn't a proper role for government. But that role should be a constitutionally permissible one, not one that grows incessantly with each demand for a problem to be solved. There are legitimate reasons to oppose attempts to use government for what would otherwise be worthwhile tasks. Pretending that the modern state is the perfect instrument to solve every problem and prevent all human suffering helps no one.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Turning freedom into free lunch by W. James Antle III (June 17, 2002)
    When you don't have to pay for freedom, you don't value it particularly highly. W. James Antle III believes that's the reality of America today
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